Craftsman or slave?

Assembly Automation

ISSN: 0144-5154

Article publication date: 1 June 2004



Loughlin, C. (2004), "Craftsman or slave?", Assembly Automation, Vol. 24 No. 2.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Craftsman or slave?

Craftsman or slave?

I cannot speak for the rest of the world, but here in the UK there is a growing appreciation of the skills of craftsmen. This can take the form of custom furniture, a building or a work of art to name, but a few.

A wise cobbler I once knew remarked that the happiest people are those who work with natural materials. This can be partly attributed to the material qualities of the leather, wood or clay in question, and also to the tools and manipulation skills of the craftsman.

A lump of oak is just firewood, a plane is just a piece of sharp metal and a person is just a carbon based life form; but together they can become poetry in motion. Compare this then with your day-to-day experience of using computers.

Spot the difference?

Our factories are now run by computers. We like to think that we are in control and most of the time we do a pretty good job of fooling ourselves. But when the computer does its own thing we suddenly find out that we are not in control at all. Pressing the reset button or switching the power off and on hardly qualifies for the status of “computer craftsman”.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could control our production processes with the same dexterity and seemingly effortless skill as the carpenter his plane?

In many ways the situation has become worse as computers have become more sophisticated. An early exponent of PLCs may well have realized “craftsman” levels of skills in controlling production processes, and it would certainly have been magical to see rows of clicking and sparking relays replaced by a small black box and a hand held programmer.

I can remember the delight of programming an Intel 8080 microprocessor and knowing exactly what bit of the program it was running at a given moment in time. Small sections of code had names and their own characters and identities lovingly given birth by a fledging electronic engineer.

Then along came multiple “interrupts” and it all went down hill from there.

As computers have progressed and become more sophisticated, so they have distanced themselves from the people that operate them. If they do go wrong our only hope of fixing them lies in the use of more computers in the form of diagnostic utilities. Of course the way forward is not to go back to the world of the Intel 8080. But instead to continue to progressively make computers so sophisticated that they become easy to use. We are certainly making progress, but we still have a long long way to go.

The theme for this issue is man/machine cooperation and we explore a wide variety of avenues of research that are helping to take us closer to an automation utopia where we can again become craftsmen in our own fields.

Clive Loughlin

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