BY MARK THOMAS
Copyright is held by the author.
THE TWO robots pivoted their bulbous heads and pneumatic crimping tools were extruded from sealed openings. Necks elongated and dipped towards a curved, oblong panel. Metal tongues and teeth nibbled away at the edges of the panel forming a curved lip with a thin, hidden channel.
A laser array marked the proper position for eight semi-circular openings. The crimpers were drawn back into silicon membranes and replaced with cutting and punching blades. Sometimes, the metal was hinged away from the holes, sometimes waste material was cleanly removed. If a piece dropped to the floor, slender fingers retrieved the scrap and transferred it to a nearby bin.
A wiring conduit was bent, notched and spot welded to the hinge side of the door. Brackets for a pneumatic opener were tacked to the flatter end of the oval.
Four hundred and eleven individual operations transformed stamped pieces of aluminum into a recognizable double-skinned helicopter door. This “blank” was laser-etched with a unique number and hung on an overhead track to be transported to the powder-coating room.
In an office, at the end of the hanger, a skeleton crew of engineers monitored the health of each individual machine and tracked spools of raw material as they were slowly transformed into a military-grade heavy-lift fuselage.
The only two human employees on the factory floor rode industrial sweepers, machines as large as hockey Zambonis, polishing the cement with brushes and directing hoses into machinery crevices. The two custodians worked in adjacent aisles and occasionally glimpsed each other through the articulated joints of the robot assemblers. They met, as usual, at the end of the fuselage line and powered down for a few minutes to talk.
“It’s Valentines Day,” the woman said, “Why aren’t you out on a date?”
“Seniority,” the young man answered. “Everyone else on the team must have made reservations. Why are you here?”
The woman smiled. “I guess I love my job.” She tilted her head at the whirring activity behind them. “Look at the way the machines move, it’s like a beautiful ballet.”
The man pointed at the undulating delivery mechanism. “The tumblers are like the ‘corps,’ the supporting dancers, while the assemblers are the leads.” In fact, the primary robot fabricators always worked in pairs, stretching, arching and twisting to perform operations, occupying the centre of their little stages. An army of lesser machines bowed their mechanical heads and bent delicate wrists.
Suddenly, the performance on the fuselage line stopped, there was a soft alarm and pulsing pink light from the monitor beacons.
“Uh oh,” the woman said. “Unscheduled maintenance.” She looked up at a schematic panel. “It’s the skylift, again. It’s losing coolant pressure.” They drove their machines to the end of the hanger and parked them in their charging ports. They had to leave the floor while the repair technicians moved in.
The robot assemblers paused their activities as soon as the alarm sounded, and adopted a resting posture. One bulbous robot head dipped and gently nested against the chest of its partner. Air hissed from a pneumatic valve.
The two human custodians walked into a tiny cafeteria, got coffee from a smiling machine and sat opposite each other at a table. Cups were raised to lips then replaced on the Formica, with handles twisted inwards, ever closer, until fingers almost touched.