Every machine shop I have walked into smells the same. The scent of spray coolant lingers in the air, its molecules tickling my nose with its artificiality. On this occasion I was attending a job interview, one that necessitates a tour of the factory floor.
I have walked through plenty of manufacturing plants, but each one shows me something I haven’t seen before. That’s probably what keeps me working in this field. This time I saw the largest CNC mills I have ever laid eyes on. One of them was so massive I didn’t immediately recognize it as a single integrated machine. It was more like a hallway bookended by sliding doors sporting big yellow “caution” signs. Inside the hallway a robotic gantry armed with an array of tools and sensors takes raw material from one end, mills it into one of an infinite variety of complex shapes, and deposits it at the other end. Provided enough raw stock is loaded, this machine can run autonomously, enacting its inhumanly precise motions indifferently to whether or not anybody is watching or is even in the building.
This machine shop, like some but not all other factories, is highly automated. The various robotic machines of this facility are kept running by just a few people. When I say “humming along,” this isn’t purely figurative. Normally, the sound of a endmill chewing through metal is no more pleasant than the smell of the coolant sprayed onto the workpiece, but the sound coming out of these vertical mills was strangely tonal, with some of the more abrasive higher frequencies muffled by the plexiglass door enclosing the machine. The combined hums from these machines settled into an oddly harmonic, meditative wall of sound. Minor adjustments in the cutting speed or the direction of feed shifted these frequencies around in a slow procession of microtones complemented by the asymmetrically rhythmic chirps and whirrs of servos flicking to a new position. All the operators had gone home for the day. The only audience to this unintentional performance were the hiring manager and myself.
There is an ambient sense of absurdity latent to many manufacturing sites. Sophisticated sciences, amalgamated human brainpower, sweaty toil, and centuries of dead labor embedded in (very expensive) fixed capital are brought to bear for the magisterial ritual of fabricating plush toys resembling Pepe the Frog. Or gaming computer LEDs, or fake grass, or plastic flamingos to stick into said fake grass, or gas station boner pills, or silicone testicles for hanging on the back of an oversized Ford F-150, or T-shirts that say “I went to New York City and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.” I’ve always wondered what it must be like to migrate every year from the Chinese countryside to some sweltering factory in Zhuhai thousands of kilometers from your children just to assemble Darth Vader action figures you wouldn’t be able to afford for them anyways. Or what it’s like to hit a button hundreds of times per day in Shenzhen that opens an expertly machined injection mold releasing sixteen silicone buttplugs at a time into a giant bin.
Sometimes the absurdity of a manufactured item is overshadowed by the horror that such a thing even exists. Things like napalm, prison uniforms, oversized single-use plastic packaging. Even generally unremarkable items like a spool of copper wire or an aluminum water bottle invoke a strange dissonance since they are borne of supply chains that are only profitable by exploitation and ecological destruction.
In a better world unclogged by individually owned cars stuck in traffic, this machine shop could be used to fabricate components for eco-friendly rail cars and electric buses, or pieces of a hydropower turbine, or linkages for robots that tend to efficient vertical farms. Technology should be the substrate on which human wellbeing is cultured and blooms, not the vehicle for our domination by the machine god of global capital. The miracle of global industrial power is capable of building us a sensible and rational system that prioritizes the health of not only the human species but the entire global ecosystem. Instead our current system prioritizes mindless profit at the expense of literally everything else. Visions of a better future are occluded by the thick fog of capitalist irrationality we are forced to navigate. Every step I take through a factory reminds me of the failed potential of human ingenuity.
As if awakening from a blissful dream to a Monday morning alarm clock, our conversation yanked me back to the realities of what this company uses these machines for: producing custom luxury car wheels for spoiled rich kids.
Nick Chávez is a mechanical engineer. He has working experience in R&D, product development, and manufacturing across several industries. Nick writes about engineering, communism, and the relationship between the two.