Friday, January 1, 2010

A New Decade Begins

Happy New Year and happy new decade everyone. I am at an age where a decade passes in a flash. It seems that just a few days ago I was watching the Millennium dawn across the Pacific Ocean. What a memorable experience that was, but now a new decade approaches. It will be earth shaking in its effects. The first decade of the 21st century saw huge advances in biology, nano-tech, brain science, personal computing, the net and so many other things, but those things have not influenced daily life to the extent that they will. They are held up behind the dam of inertia and lack of knowledge. The dam is breaking.. Never has knowledge moved faster. I read the other day that Americans consumed three times the information today that they did as recently as 1980. That will have its effects. But first, I want to ponder what things have influenced the last ten years in my life.

As the new Millennium dawned, I was still working. GM was much more of a player than today and I was in the truck engineering business. It was exciting. I had the best boss of my career and had just come back from working in Japan. I loved the new systems we were using to build trucks and I had surely built trucks. I built engines and frames for 1973-1975 pick-ups and utility vehicles. I built frames and dressed them out for SUV's; connected the trimmed out bodies to these frames and drove them off the end of the assembly line from 1975 to 1980 then I went into the interior of the cab to build dash boards and install all the trim that makes a vehicle a finished thing instead of a glorified tool box. About 1983, I started building those bodies in the cab shop. I had many fewer people and a lot more hard automation. I learned the machine gun like stutter of a manual spot welding gun and how to dodge the sparks these guns could shoot six-ten feet. I also had the paint department. What a different world that was. When I started, people were doing most of the painting. In my last years in paint, robots did almost all the painting and people cleaned metal and watched them. During the first Iraq War, Dessert Storm, I was in Lordstown, Ohio learning how to build the big Chevy van which we called the G Van. There, we had two men who worked one hour on and one hour off painting the entire inside of this big van. They had breathing devices they had to wear to survive. When they entered the vehicle, sat down on a plastic bucket and started to paint, I saw them no more until they got out of the truck. Baltimore Assembly had a new, electrostatic robot doing this job a year or two later. That robot would reach into the body through the back doors and paint at a terrific rate. The inside of that Astro van was done in about one minute with no human touching anything. It was a marvel.

Robots were far from the biggest changes though. These were caused by part design for assembly, systems changes that scheduled each truck so much better and simple ways that each person's job was set up. All these things together made a working building a truck in 1990 about the equal of 1.5 people from 1973. These were effects of the 'Toyota Production System' which was about as big a change as Henry Ford's assembly line concept.

The seventies were a decade in waiting, as far as the computer was concerned. Oh, big things were happening, especially from the outlook at the time, but computers didn't dominate the decade except in the thoughts of a few of us.

In 1972, when I was still working for Manpower Inc and not yet a truck builder, I went into typewriter exchange in Flint and after much soul searching bought a four function calculator with no memory and an external charger for $180. I was twenty-seven and I just had to have it even though I was only earning $550 per month so it was about a third of a months wages. They had been much more money in the recent past. This thing was a marvel for my industrial engineering buddies who did their math with a Freiden in the office or with a pencil on the side of a box in the plant.  This was probably the first calculator to hit Vassar too.  At least, my Jaycee buddies had never seen anything like it.  After that, for about five years, I regularly bought a new calculator.  Normally, these came from Texas instruments and cost about $180.  Each time, they had more capacity.  I took to carring one on my belt.  These things were as big as a hunting knife and could really intimidate in that era.  My last one before the computer era was a TI-59 ,  This could hold 999 program steps and the program could be recorder on a mag strip.  A new age had arrived.  I got a thermal printer and the calculator for Christmas one year and spent all vacation programming a GM efficiency report.  It just made it in the 999 steps.  This did the work of two men  with one in half the time.  I was pleased.

Then I found the teletype that lived in the backroom.  Nobody was doing anything with it. so I got a plan.  I found out that you could run programs written in Basic on that machine.  You hooked the telephone handset into a cradle, dialed a number, listened to the chirping and prayed on hot days.  Then you were time sharing on the big computer in the sky.  ie  Swartz Creek Parts Division.  After hours and hours of learning to write basic and coding this program that never ran even the fifth time.  I got one running.  and put the calculator program out of business.  The teletype replaced the two men with only one for two hours per day.  Progress!

For my birthday in 1977, I got what has to be the most important present of my life.  My friend, Ron Sprague and I drove to Apple Creek Station  on the corner of Northwestern Highway and Inkster Road where I bought a newly introduced Apple II for $1190.  I was making $1060 per month by then.  I brought it home, connected the TV that served as a monitor and was not included.  Found and connected my cassette player that would serve as a disk drive and uploaded a program.  The theme from 2001 a space Odessey started and my life changed forever.  Then came computing magazines and trips to the Apple club in Detroit where people from all kinds of business met to learn about their machines,  VisiCalc was invented and business was revolutionized.  Visi-Calc was the first program like Excel is today.  I had it at home three years before we had it in GM.

In 1980, my plant was ready to try personal computers.  My friend, Kiley Reid and I went to Computerland on Dort Highway in Flint and bought an IBM pc with a copy of the brand new Lotus 123.  We also got a copy of dBase II  which was a relational database like Access.  We got it on a friday and my bosses who know nothing about computers ordered me to have a water leak program running by Monday.  I worked a long Saturday but we got it.

Flint Assembly spent huge amounts of time and money for the next ten years teaching most of its salaried staff and some hourly how to run these machines.  I did a lot of the training for this and set up the original machines.  I really was doing industrial engineering work about half the time and PC coordinator work the other half.  By 1990 most departments had a PC or two and tens of people were using them every day.

These machines were small though.  I got caught up in the scrap problem at Flint..  A big plant like that had about 50,000 different part usages that need to be tracked.  PC's of that era had no hard drive at all,  The ran on 180 kilobyte floppy disks.  most of which had to be for the operating system and some program like dbase or Lotus 123.  The scrap program had to run on the main frame.

All kinds of resources might be buried and not used in a large plant like Flint.  We had three terminals in industral engineering that connected to the mainframe and ran TSO or Time Share Option.  You could do alot with TSO in an era when parts lists were written on sheets of paper with 80 columns and keypunched by a lady two floors above you.   TSO let you do keypunching  online.  No More Lady... TSO let you do computer copying. so if I had a card that was just like the five below it except for one or two keystrokes, I could type one, copy four and edit a couple of characters and be done.  No more writing 80 characters x 5 lines or 400 letters and numbers with a pencil.  Great!!

Of course there had to be something better than TSO and there was.  It was called EZtrieve.  Nobody could write it but in GM fashion, we had it, whether we knew it or not.   That could sort records. Move them around and add them up.  It could write reports.  Viola.

Well, not quite.  It was not a relational database.  In fact it wasn't a real database program at all.  but you could fake it.  Now relational databases..then and now.. let you do a neat thing. If you have one file that says something like

  1. 81010103010010 00103121 Radiator  LS9&C60 
  2. 81010103010010 00103122 Radiator  LS9-C60 
    and another file that says
  1. 00103121 CA21 
  2. 00103121 CA71
  3. 00103121 CC01
  4. 00103121 CC05 
  5. 00103121 FB05

    1. 00103122 CA23
    2. 00103122 CA72
    3. 00103122 CC05
    4. 00103122 CC01 
    5. 00103122 FB06

    You can join the two files together on a common key in a one to many relationship and end up with records like

  6. 81010103010010 00103121 Radiator  LS9&C60 CA21
  7. 81010103010010 00103121 Radiator  LS9&C60 CA71
  8. 81010103010010 00103121 Radiator  LS9&C60 CC01
  9. 81010103010010 00103121 Radiator  LS9&C60 CC05
  10. 81010103010010 00103121 Radiator  LS9&C60 FB05
  11. 81010103010010 00103121 Radiator  LS9-C60  CA23
  12. 81010103010010 00103121 Radiator  LS9-C60  CA72
  13. 81010103010010 00103121 Radiator  LS9-C60  CC05
  14. 81010103010010 00103121 Radiator  LS9-C60  CC01
  15. 81010103010010 00103121 Radiator  LS9-C60  FB06
  16. Now, that trick doesn't amount to much until you have many files to join and tens of thousands of records in each file and a computer without much capacity.  If you have that problem and this technique and do it right you can save $100,000 dollars a year on 50,000 trucks and that was always the point.
Flint had another buried program that was just a classic called Focus.  Focus could do almost anything that Access can to today.  It wrote fast and ran quickly.  It only had one problem.  It ran on the main frame and could cost $2000-5000  per month to run,.  The boss didn't figure it out for quite a while, but we are still making money.  Today, this program would run on a PC with Access for FREE except for the purchase cost.  That's what twenty years have done.

In 1991, I got the chance to move from Flint Assembly to Ottawa Towers in downtown Pontiac.  It was a great move.  and for a few months I wasn't an industrial engineer.  I became a process engineer.  After almost twenty years, I didn't have a stopwatch.  I didn't have standard data books to tell me how long it takes to move a human arm 18 inches.and I didn't do cost studies or work with the union.  I made assembly documents.  It was probably the best job I ever had.  We would decide how to assemble a piece of the a truck in my case medium duty trucks like school buses, gravel trucks, stake racks etc.  make a part list and cut and paste a picture of an exploded assembly with leader lines to the parts.  I liked it.

Change happened and I ended up with this job and an IE job.  OK, that was alright.  I helped build the Savanna Van in Wentzville, the Astro van in Baltimore, pickups in Arlington, Texas, and a couple things in Shreveport, La.  Finally, I was put on the Colorado, small pickup being designed in Michigan but built worldwide.  That is how I got to Japan. and worked for a few days in the Fujisawa Isuzu Plant.

In 2000, Sue and I had three three teen-agers at home and spent a lot of time parenting.. The house was so much busier than it is now and had a fair share of inter-generational conflict. At the end of the decade, I am really pleased with all my kids. They have done so much. That may be the biggest magic that happened this last decade. I started with mostly teenagers and ended with a whole set of these impressive young people that you see dashing through airports with a laptop and a cell phone in full glory.

The computing revolution that began way back at the end of WWII has been a major piece of my life. I have spent so much time on it and it has been so important in my daily thoughts that at this age events prove that it is a major theme of my life.

I have a bunch more to say but I will post this for now.

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