Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 29
“Not surprising, really,” Howsmyn replied, looking back out the window. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot longer than you have, after all. But the truth is that all I’ve really managed so far is to go to a sort of intermediate system, one in which workmen make individual, interchangeable parts that can be assembled rather than one in which a group of artisans is responsible for making the entire machine or rifle or pair of scissors or disk harrow or reaping machine from the ground up. My craftsmen produce parts from templates and jigs, to far closer tolerances than anyone ever achieved before, and we’re using stamping processes and powered machinery to make parts it used to take dozens of highly skilled artisans to make by hand. They can produce the components far more rapidly, and I can put more of them to work making the parts I need in larger numbers, or making the parts that take longer to make, so that I’m turning out the optimum number of parts to keep the actual assembly moving smoothly, without bottlenecks. But each of those fabricating processes is separate from all the others, and then all the pieces have to be taken to wherever the final product’s being put together and assembled in one place. It’s not bad for something fairly small and simple, like a rifle or a pistol, but the bigger and more complex the final product, the more cumbersome it gets.”
“And it still makes your workforce many times more efficient than anything the Church has going for it,” Wylsynn pointed out.
“Yes, it does, and more and more of my fellow ironmasters are starting to use the same techniques. Some of them are clearly infringing on my patents, of course.” Howsmyn grinned at the intendant, who was also the head of the Imperial Patent Office. “I’m sure several of them — like that bastard Showail — wonder why I haven’t already taken legal action. Wouldn’t do to tell them how happy I am about it, now would it?” He shook his head. “Eventually, I’m going to have to take some action to defend the patents, if we don’t want them asking questions about why a mark-grubbing manufactory owner such as myself isn’t complaining about people robbing him blind. But even with the new techniques spreading, we’re still a long way from where we could be. And frankly, we need to crank our efficiency an awful lot higher if we’re going to compensate for the sheer manpower, however inefficient it may be, the Temple can throw at the same sorts of problems now that it’s finally starting to get itself organized. According to Owl’s SNARCs, Desnair and the Temple Lands are beginning to build new water powered blast furnaces and rolling mills, for example, with Clyntahn’s blessings and Duchairn’s financial backing. It won’t be long before they start improving their drop hammers, too, and however good that may be for Merlin’s overall plans, it’s not the kind of news the Empire needs. We’ve got to stay as far ahead as we can, and that’s especially true for me, since my foundries and manufactories are the Empire’s cutting edge. That’s where a real assembly-line would come in, if we could only make it work.”
“How does that differ from what you’re already doing?”
“In a proper assembly-line, whatever’s being built — assembled — moves down a line of workstations on a conveyor belt, or on a moving crane — or, if it’s a vehicle of some sort, on its own wheels, perhaps, once they’ve been attached. What matters is that it goes to the workmen, rather than the workmen coming to it. As it passes each station, the workman or workmen at that station perform their portion of the assembly process. They connect a specific part or group of parts, and that’s all they do. Whatever they’re building is brought to them. The work force is sized so there’s enough manpower at each station to let that part of the assembly be done in as close to the same amount of time as every other part, so that the line keeps moving at a steady pace. And because each group of workers performs exactly the same function on each new assembly, they can do their part of the task far more efficiently . . . and a hell of a lot more quickly.”
“I see.” Wylsynn sipped from his own glass, frowning, and rubbed one eyebrow. “I hope this doesn’t sound too obtuse, but why can’t you do that?”
“I can do something like that with relatively small items, like pistols and rifles. I have runners on the shop floor who wheel cartloads from one workstation to another. But to do that on a true industrial scale, I need to be able to locate machine tools — powered machine tools — at the proper places in the assembly process. Before Merlin, we really didn’t have ‘machine tools,’ although I’d been applying waterpower to as many processes as I could before he ever came along. Now my artisans’ve invented a whole generation of powered tools, everything from lathes to drill presses to powered looms and spinning machines for Rhaiyan’s textile manufactories. In fact, they’ve leapfrogged a hundred years or more of Earth’s industrial history — largely because of the ‘hints’ Merlin and I have been able to give them. But all of them are still limited by the types of power available — they’re tied to waterwheels or the hydro-accumulators by shafting and drive belts. They aren’t . . . flexible, and they are dangerous, no matter how careful my managers and I try to be. The steam engines are going to help, but we still can’t simply locate machinery where we need it located; we have to locate it where we can provide power to it, instead. Electricity, and electric motors, would give us a distributed power network that would let us do that. Steam and waterpower don’t.”
Wylsynn nodded slowly, thinking about all of the patent applications he’d approved over the last four years. Probably two thirds of them had come from Howsmyn or his artisans, although an increasing number were coming from Charisians who’d never heard of the Terran Federation. That was a good sign, but he hadn’t really considered the problem Howsmyn had just described. Probably, he reflected, because he’d been so busy being impressed by what the ironmaster had already accomplished.
Like the steam engine they’d just observed. Thanks to Owl — and Merlin, of course — Howsmyn had completely bypassed the first hundred or hundred and fifty years of the steam engine’s development back on long-dead Earth. He’d gone directly to water tube boilers and compound expansion engines, with steam pressures of almost three hundred pounds per square inch, something Earth hadn’t approached until the beginning of its twentieth century. Oh, his initial engine had been a single-cylinder design, but that had been as much a test of the concept as anything else. He’d moved on to double-cylinder expansion engines for his first canal boat trials, but no canal boat offered anything like enough room for that monster they’d just watched in action. Still, the boat engines had been a valuable learning exercise . . . and even they operated at a far higher pressure — and efficiency — than anything attainable before the very end of Old Earth’s nineteenth century.
The advances he’d already made in metallurgy, riveting and welding, and quality control had helped to make those pressures and temperatures possible, but Safehold had always had a working empirical understanding of hydraulics. That was one reason Howsmyn’s hydro-accumulators had been relatively easy for Wylsynn to approve even before he’d been admitted to the inner circle; they’d simply been one more application — admittedly, an ingenious one — of concepts which had been used in the waterworks the “archangels” had made part of Safehold’s infrastructure from the Day of Creation. But the compact efficiency of the engines Howsmyn was about to introduce would dwarf even the hydro-accumulators’ impact on what Merlin called his “power budget.” So perhaps it wasn’t surprising Wylsynn had been more focused on that increase than on the even greater potentials of the electricity he still understood so poorly himself.
Especially since electricity’s one thing we can be pretty certain would attract the “Rakurai” if the bombardment platform detected it,
he thought grimly. We’re lucky it doesn’t seem to worry about steam, but I don’t think it would miss a generating plant!
He shuddered internally at the thought of turning Charis into another Armageddon Reef, yet even as he did, another, very different thought occurred to him. He started to shake it off, since it was so obviously foolish. Even if it had offered any useful potential, surely Merlin and Howsmyn would already have thought of it! But it wouldn’t shake, and he frowned down into his whiskey glass.