We haven’t really gone on vacation this summer, but Dad’s been taking us on trips a lot. This week we went to the GM factory in Janesville and the Post Office downtown. They were, naturally, rather different, but what was most interesting was their similarities.

The GM Factory

After driving for hours through barren country lands, we finally found our way to the small city of Janesville and the car factory that was clearly a major part of it. As we parked in the visitor parking lot (which oddly let anyone in but required a passcode to get out…automatic towing?) we noticed the proud “ISO 9002 Compliant!”, “SOAR (Save the Environment. Obey the Laws. Assess damages. Reattach broken parts.)” and “UAW, Janesville and GM Working Together with Pride Possibiblity and Pained Smiles” banners. [OK, I may have misremembered some of them.]

Inside there was a rather sizable group also taking the tour. A rather old fellow (he looked like a retired car-builder) took us out to the tour cart. As we sped away he narrated using the speakers built into the cart. Immediately, it felt like the takeoff in one of those spaceship rides at Disney World. You were in a dark building, slowly moving forward with sparks and other people speeding past you.

He showed us how conveyors moved parts all around the building and up into the attic (“the body bay”) for storage. Pieces went through an automated painting system that looked like a car wash and then were split up to follow different tracks through the factory. Large robotic arms whirred around at frightening speeds, welding cars together and creating large sparks that blasted in all directions. On the assembly line, people added things like engines and tires to car bodies that rolled down the line, using all sorts of tools to make the jobs easier.

Once the car was fully assembled it went through a computerized inspection system to insure everything was working properly, and then was driven out to the parking lot.

Every piece was tracked and barcoded, with pieces of paper to identify it. The workers repeated the same jobs over and over (“they become experts in their task” as the tour guide put it). Scattered throughout were break rooms and around the perimeter were doctors and banks and even a small organization that printed the daily newsletter.

After the tour we watched a short film on the long history of the Janesville plant. The tour guides emphasized what a change the robots were, and how all the automation was making the plant more efficient but the workers less necessary. They were extremely proud of the Janesville plant, and upset that one of their production lines (small-body trucks) had been taken away and given to Flint, MI. Not only did this eliminate a lot of jobs, but it seemed an affront to their pride and hard work.

The Post Office

We drove downtown to the Chicago post office. Located in a large modern new (only a decade old) new building, it was an example of automation at its finest. In their old building sorting all of Chicago’s mail had required nine floors, but the new system of conveyors and computers had made it possible to process even more mail on only two.

Our guide, a female African-American (like most of the employees we saw — the rest were male African-Americans) who sorted mail when she wasn’t giving tours, emphasized how this had eliminated a large number of jobs. But their union contract insisted that long-time workers (she had been there for many years) could not be fired or get paid less. As a result, many of them were moved into office jobs (whether they were needed or not).

The insides of the post office itself seemed almost empty. It was a large warehouse filled with machines, conveyors, carts, freight elevator and boxes upon boxes of mail but people were mysteriously missing. Sorting the mail by state, a job that used to be done by humans who had memorized all the zip codes, was now done automatically by giant machines which only needed a couple technicians to oversee. Another machine sorted the mail into perfect order so that all a mail carrier would need to do is pick his pile up. It used a series of high-speed belts so fast that it could sort a large stack of mail in seconds.

The only place humans were in evidence were at the change of address center, where people typed in change of address cards by hand and fed mail through machines that would slap the yellow change-of-address stickers on them.

There was a giant control center, filled with keyboards and displays to monitor the entire center. It was staffed 24-hours-a-day with just one person at all times. The fellow inside when we were there looked up at us through the window for just a second and went back to whatever it was he was doing without so much as a smile or a wave. Clearly it was Important Business.

The rest of the floors were mostly the same. There were a handful of robots to arrange packages in boxes, but other than that it was just different shaped machines for different kinds of packages. The pattern remained: Humans were just there to make sure nothing got caught or stuck. They hardly needed training; the computers had all the important knowledge.

It seemed like a more advanced version of the GM factory. The robots had gotten more advanced and quickly replaced the humans. “The economy is going to crash,” my little brother Ben commented. “In the future the only job is going to be building robots.”

posted August 16, 2002 04:26 PM (Technology) #


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Aaron Swartz (me@aaronsw.com)