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Someday My Prints Will Come

I don't know about you (well, obviously I don't, I'm not even sure who you are) but Amazon and their associates have the happy ...

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Automatically, Sunshine?

February's column never made it to their website (it can be a bit sporadic) so here it is in its scanned glory.  I've put the full text below as well.

There's been a lot in the papers recently about the rise of the robots in the workplace and how these might displace jobs in the future.  Yet, as I recall, from the predictions on things like 'Tomorrow's World', we should all be sunning ourselves on the beach by now whilst the machines do all the work.  It seems to me that most of the things that are supposed to result in fewer people and more leisure time (remember the 'paperless office'?) actually seem to achieve the reverse, but I suppose only time will tell.  However, I do think there are some jobs that really don't make the best use of the people employed to do them, and there was no better illustration of this than in Harold Wesley Ltd., in the 1970s.

You see, Wesley's was notoriously tight-fisted when it came to capital investment.  Most of their machinery must have pre-dated the last unpleasantness in 1939-1945, with just a few exceptions to the rule, such as the second-hand printing press I mentioned last month.  Old machinery tended to come from an era when people were cheap and machines were expensive, so fiddly labour-saving extras were few and far between.

For example, if we walk along the corridor from the Printing Dept., where we were last month, we come to a room where the wrapping paper is converted from rolls into sheets.  There are three chaps here who are the mainstay of the department, Frank, Albert (who is in charge) and one other whose name escapes me.  All three must be nearing retirement age and seem to have been at Wesley's man and boy.  Their role here is to diligently count the sheets coming off the machine and place a cardboard tab in the pile for every 480 sheets (this being the quantity of a ream, in those pre-metric days).  I'm sure there was more to it, but that activity seemed to sum up the bulk of their work.  I know it must have paid the bills but can you imagine how boring it must have been?  There really ought to be a better use of people than that!

Mind you, Frank and Albert's work would have seemed positively enriching compared to what Greta had to put up with, downstairs.  From time to time, an ancient piece of machinery, which folded wrapping paper into neat squares, was dusted off and put to use.  This machine worked perfectly well, but it had one vital element missing.  It had no means of feeding the sheets into the machine, automatically.  Greta seemed to be either the only one who knew how the machine worked, or was possibly the only one who was prepared to use it.  Her role was to push each sheet into the machine, with her forefinger, time after time.  The constant procession of a brightly coloured design making its way across her line of sight, along with the mind-crushing boredom, had a tendency to send her into something of a trance allegedly.  I think it would have sent me into a padded room.

Managers  have a tendency not to understand that workplaces are as much a social hub as a place of business, and that you mess around with that at your peril.  You may recall the Crepe Paper Dept., where the girls wound the crepe onto a drum of a certain diameter, then cut across the swatch to give them a pile of sheets which they folded by means of something akin to a fast spinning wooden rolling pin?  Waiting for your turn to wind your particular colour paper was a chance for the girls to have a natter and a break from monotonously folding sheet after sheet.  At least, it was until Wesley's employed a Work Study Engineer (I was his assistant, I seem to have specialised in finding unpopular jobs for myself over the years) who redesigned the process so that one girl did all of the winding for the entire department, ensuring the others were not distracted from their task of folding the sheets.  I'm sure it was more efficient, but I'll bet it wasn't anywhere near as interesting, and that would be saying something!

You can find Philip's most recent collection of stories, 'Crutches for Ducks' at