Each had been shipped with a corresponding box of wires and controls. Each weighed 40.6 pounds. They had been specifically designed to replicate movements with such precision than any deviation was
no greater than the thickness of a human hair - a skill particularly helpful for Robot 1, which had been brought in to perform one of the most repetitive jobs in the factory.
As the engineers prepared it for operation, Robot 1 had been bolted in front of a 10-foot-tall mechanical press. It was rigged with safety sensors and programmed to make a three-foot path of motion, one that it would use to make part No. 07123571. More commonly, Tenere called this part the claw.
The purpose of the claw was to holster a disk drive. Tenere had been making them for two years, at two separate mechanical presses, where workers fed 6-by-7 inch pieces of flat aluminum into the machine, pressed two buttons simultaneously, and then extracted the metal - now bent at the edges. Tenere's workers were supposed to do this 1,760 times per shift.
Robot 1, almost programmed now, started trying it out. It snatched the flat metal from its left side, then swiveled back toward the press. It moved noiselessly. It released the part into the mouth of the machine, and as soon as it withdrew, down came the press to shape the metal into a claw: Wallop. The robot's arm then retrieved the part, swiveling back to its left, and dropping the claw on a conveyor belt.
"How fast do you want it?" Hirebotics co-founder Rob Goldiez asked a plant manager supervising the installation.
First the robot was cycling every 20 seconds, and then every 14.9 seconds, and then every 10 seconds. An engineer toggled with the settings, and later the speed bumped up again. A claw was being produced every 9.5 seconds. Or 379 every hour; 3,032 every shift; 9,096 every day.
"This motion," Goldiez said, "will be repeatable for years."
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Some distance away, in front of another mechanical press, was a 51-year-old man named Bobby Campbell who had the same job as Robot 1. He'd wound up with the position because of an accident: In February, he'd had too much to drink, tumbled off a deck at his daughter's house, and broken his neck. When he returned after three months, Tenere pulled him out of the laser department and put him on light duty. Now, as the testing continued on a robot that he said "just looks like something you see in the damned dentist's office," Campbell was starting his 25th consecutive workday feeding claws to the machine. He'd punched the same two buttons that activated the press 36,665 times.
"Beat that robot today," Campbell's supervisor said.
"Hah," Campbell said, turning his back and settling in at his station, where there were 1,760 claws to make and eight hours until he drove home.
He set his canvas lunch container on a side table and oiled his mechanical press. He cut open a box of parts and placed the first flat piece of metal under the press. A gauge on the side of the press kept count. Wallop. "1," the counter said, and after Campbell had pressed the button 117 more times, there were seven hours to go.
Unlike the employees on the assembly line, Campbell worked alone. His press was off in a corner. There was no foot traffic, nobody to talk to, nothing to look at. Campbell stopped his work and removed a container of pills. He took a low-dose aspirin for his neck, another pill for high blood pressure. He snacked on some peppers and homemade pickles, fed 393 more parts in the machine, and then it was time for lunch. Four hours to go.
"Monday," he said with a little shrug. "I'll pick it up after I get some fuel."
Campbell had been at Tenere for three years. He earned $13.50 per hour. He had a bad back, a shaved and scarred head, a tear duct that perpetually leaked after orbital surgery, and aging biceps that he showed off with sleeveless Harley-Davidson shirts. He liked working at Tenere, he said. Good people. Good benefits. Some days he hit his targets, other days he didn't, but his supervisors never got on him, and the company had always been patient with him, even as he dealt with some personal problems.
He lived 31 miles and 40 minutes away, provided he didn't stop. The problem was, sometimes he did. Along the drive home there were a dozen gas stations and minimarts selling beer, and Campbell said he couldn't figure out why some days he would turn in. He'd tried everything he could think of to stop himself. Calling his daughters, calling his wife. Turning up the music and listening to Rod Stewart. He'd been to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, he said. He'd spent 28 days at a treatment center. He'd looked for jobs that would cut down on the commute. He'd faced a family intervention where the whole family read him letters, as he sat there feeling like what he called a "kindergartner."
Sometimes, Campbell said, he almost thought he was through the worst - sober for weeks at a time - but then came Saturday, when he was supposed to work an eight-hour shift and instead clocked out after three hours, stopping on the way home and downing a 12-pack of beer before sundown. Then came Sunday, another 12 beers out on the lake. Now it was Monday, and Campbell said he was sure he'd be okay if he could just get home. There, his wife only allowed him to have nonalcoholic beers. But that was 31 miles away. "Just the uncertainty," Campbell said, and he tried not to think about it, with the lunch break over, and 3 hours and 40 minutes to go.
He stepped onto the floor pad in front of the press and got back to work. A box of flat metal pieces was to his left, a hopper of finished claws sat on his right, and Campbell's hands moved in a rhythm, grabbing and inserting. "As long as I've got parts in front of me, I'm all right," he said. Twenty minutes without looking up. Then 40. Then nearly 60. The gauge said 912.
"All right," Campbell said, when there was an hour left to go, still pressing the buttons.
He hummed a song. He whistled. He fed 11 pieces of metal to the machine in a minute, and then 13, then nine. His eyes darted from left to right. He nodded his head.
The press's clutch was hissing and exhaling, hissing and exhaling, and Campbell added a last pump of oil to the machine with 15 minutes to go. Out came a few more parts, and he fed them into the hopper, checked the gauge, and shrugged. "Not so bad," he said.
Time to go home. He had punched the buttons another 1,376 times, 384 shy of his target, and now he got in the car.
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