2022-10-03 7 min read


Notes, 2022-10-03.

It’s easy to feel small when a giant robot arm is swinging a car above your head and you’re surrounded by CNC machines large enough to be comfortable apartments. At 112,000 square meters and with over 80,000 attendees, The International Manufacturing Technology Show is jaw-droppingly massive. The scale of the trade show transcends any space I’ve visited in North America, and walking through hall after hall reminded me of Shenzhen’s Huaqiangbei or the Yiwu commodities market – but with more robot arms. Everywhere there are robot arms – playing chess, lifting bicycles, and sorting dummy parts into ever-growing piles

While robots vie for attention, larger trends in manufacturing emerge from the maelstrom. A representative from the Taiwan Smart Machinery group spoke about how in his entire 30-year career, he’s never seen such a dramatic confluence of factors affect the sector – pandemic shutdowns, unpredictable freight costs, and labor shortages, all hitting at once. Automation, nearshoring, and the ever-elusive search for qualified talent permeated speaker tracks, with corresponding booths ready to sell their remedies.

For me, the remedy to the dizzying scale of the show came from taking time to hang out with people I’ve met through The Prepared. So much of my life is mediated through a screen, and replacing teeny Zoom-mediated faces with real people and their products was pretty magical. It also brought another trend into focus: changing demographics in manufacturing. While many business owners are nearing retirement, most companies in our network have young teams with decades of work ahead. We may be inheriting a whole host of intractable problems, but at least we’ll be solving them in good company.

-Hillary Predko

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~5% of opens) was about dolos, wave-dissipating concrete blocks originating in South Africa. In the Members' Slack, we're introducing a #community-swap-meet channel for finding new homes for things that you aren’t using to their fullest extent.

Planning & Strategy.

Kate Beaton is best known for her quirky history comics, but her recent graphic memoir Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands is a stark departure. The book recounts the years she spent working to pay off student loans in Northern Alberta, weaving in larger narratives about economic migration and environmental impacts. It’s frankly a pretty chilling read – stories of loneliness, harassment, and workplace fatalities in isolated workcamps unfold in short vignettes (some of which are included in this interview). Her work captures the catch-22 of working in the oil and gas industry: for many, it offers economic opportunities that simply don’t exist elsewhere – but dangerous work in an isolated environment takes its toll.

Employment numbers in the oil sands have fluctuated up and down: the sector employed 71,000 in 2001, peaked at 128,800 in 2014, and is down to 85,000 today. The province’s average oil production has continued to grow, a trend which is at odds with Canada’s climate goals: simply extracting oil and gas accounts for 27% of total national emissions. These employment numbers (and export income that the sector produces) make it hard to imagine a world in which Alberta's oil production would be phased out – a situation I find frustrating.

The year Beaton left Alberta, hundreds of ducks died after becoming trapped in oil sands tailing ponds, inspiring the name of the memoir. She says, “Ducks are migratory animals that get stuck when they land in the oil – the metaphor is easy.”

Making & Manufacturing.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

  • Taipei 101 is named for, well, being in Taipei and being 101 stories tall. The skyscraper is susceptible to oscillation from strong winds, and earthquakes (it is built just 200 meters from a fault line). To stabilize the structure, a 660 metric ton tuned mass damper is installed toward the top of the tower and negates up to 40% of the oscillation. The massive device was sent up in pieces and welded on site. See it sway during a 2022-09-18 earthquake here. Somewhat related: Traditional pagodas in Japan take a vernacular approach to seismic safety.
  • In the introduction to the 1944 classic The Ashley Book of Knots, Clifford Ashley recounts the various people who taught him the craft of knot tying: “I hobnobbed with butchers and steeplejacks, cobblers and truck drivers, electric linesmen, Boy Scouts, and with elderly ladies who knit.” The passage left me curious about what exactly a steeplejack is.

    It turns out steeple is the operative word: steeplejacks scale tall buildings, such as church steeples, to perform maintenance and repairs. The most famous steeplejack of all time might be Fred Dibnah, a rowdy character who was profiled by the BBC in the 70s-90s. He was a stout man who often cursed and muttered under his breath while scaling precipitous towers with no safety gear. See him flexing his knot tying skills while installing ladders here, installing scaffolding while perched on a rope swing here, and scaling those ladders to clamber over scaffolding at height here. The trade is less prolific than it once was, but continues on (with much more safety equipment on site).

Distribution & Logistics.

  • This interview with the “last man standing in the floppy disk business” is fascinating. Tom Persky’s business is something of a reverse logistics operation. The last time he managed to buy new stock from a manufacturer was over a decade ago, so he recycles disks sent in by people who no longer need them. He can process up to 1000 old disks a day, but only about 70% of the stock is recoverable. The bulk of his stock is sold to customers running high-value industrial equipment that still requires floppy disks. While he doesn’t say who his customers are, the US nuclear program and the avionics in many 747s use floppy disks.
  • This video delves into the simplicity and elegance of New York City’s water infrastructure. While Manhattan and the boroughs are surrounded by water, the Hudson and East rivers are salty estuaries, unfit for drinking. The city relies on a network of freshwater reservoirs in the Catskill mountains to deliver 2.5 million liters a minute via two aqueducts. The video also touches on City Tunnel No. 3, a 100 km long water-supply tunnel which has been under construction for 52 years and has been called “one of the most complex public works ever attempted.” It is scheduled for completion in 2026. Also, see Nineteen Reservoirs by Lucy Sante for an in-depth history of the water system.
  • A nice Twitter thread on household waste logistics (and trains!) in Switzerland.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.

“...eventually we hit on a scheme that seemed to work. And we used it to write down loads of different juggling tricks that we knew.

We discovered that if we arranged those tricks in just the right way, they fell into a pattern. There was an underlying, unsuspected structure. As long as you had the courage to leave gaps. And this goes back to things like the Periodic Table, when Mendeley was writing down all the elements – he realized that if you arranged them all according to function, then there were gaps, and that then predicted the existence of chemical elements.

Well, we were predicting the existence of juggling tricks. And it worked! We actually found juggling tricks that no one had ever done before.”

See some of these innovations in action here, and play around with a siteswap simulator here.
  • ISO 216, an international standard for paper size, designates the elegant A-size system. The elegance may not be immediately obvious, as the side lengths of each paper size have awkward measurements. Take for example A4, which is 210 mm by 297 mm – why not round up to 300 mm? This love letter to A4 explains how the system is designed around scaling: half of an A0 sheet (841 x 1189 mm) gives you an A1 sheet (594 x 841 mm), and so on down to A8; each designated size is a perfect half of the size above, and maintains the same aspect ratio. To achieve an area scale factor of 2, the length scale factor must be the square root of two, which is then rounded to millimeter sizes that may initially appear random.


A flower on a piece of aerogel, suspended over a bunsen burner.

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