Sunday, April 09, 2006

40 Metric Tons of Pressure

Set us up a box with various bits of Open Source wizardry, mainly to serve mail but also with SVN and Trac at a hardware manufacturer's plant, far from the madding crowds of Bangalore, yesterday.

Now these guys make HARDWARE - you name the shape in steel that you want, and they'll cut, warp, bend, punch and break things to create it. And ohmygod the machines! This column is too small to contain the number of exclamation marks required to express my slack-jawed astonishment on seeing them.

There's this punching machine. And what a machine eet ees! It's got a rotating turret which is suspended vertically above a bed on which the sheet of metal moves automatically. The turret can take 24 different punching tools along with the corresponding holes. The turret is programmed to rotate into position - the sheet of metal moves to control x and y, and the punching tool is pushed hard and fast into the sheet. Different shapes are created based on the shape of the punch and the distance between the punch and 'hole'. The machine operating at high-speed, punching, and moving the sheet in an arcane pattern, is truly a sight to behold.

Then there's a bending machine. Ever wondered how the various metal boxes you use all have the same shape? Well this is the machine that does it. There's an inch thick metal sheet with a groove along the edge. A corresponding edge shape-inverted sheet comes down on it with up to 40 metric tons of hydraulic pressure. If there's anything in between, well it's going to get bent way out of shape. The depth to which the punch goes in determines the angle to which the sheet is bent. The whole thing is automated brilliantly, with the operator required only to hold the sheet hard against a moving base. The base moves according to the location on the sheet where the bending has to be done. After each bend is done, the base moves to the new location, and the operator has to hold the sheet as shown on the screen against the base, until the cycle is done. Repeat for each piece of metal.

I found something awe-inspiring in all of this otherwise quite mundane mechanical engineering. How much effort, intellectual and mechanical, has gone into refining and improving the method of such a seemingly simple thing as bending metal? How many times a day do we use the fruits of these labours without realizing the near god-like strength that has been vested in these machines? Do we ever stop to wonder that humans have created machines which can tear apart and bend steel in ways that no puny human can ever hope to achieve with his bare hands? Sure there's an intellectual awareness somewhere, that the finished metal goods we see around us must have been cut and bent, and that machines must have had some part in the process. But when you actually see the machines in operation - you realize that humans are truly gods!

I wonder why I have never had this awareness before, and why people around me are not struck dumb, as I am, at the sheer scale of what we as a race have achieved. Is it not incredible? Is there anything more incredible?

Some of what we have done is magic by any definition*. Imagine pointing a hidden wifi camera at an Apple Intel Powerbook ;-). Configure the powerbook to show the camera output fullscreen. Let the Powerbook run on the battery, i.e., unconnected to anything else. Bring Newton (the apple and prism guy) and put him in front of the powerbook. Watch as his head explodes when he tries to make sense out of this.

Or call your friend 20,000 kilometers away from your location in the middle of the forest atop a small hill, ask him to send you a picture. Or send him a video of you in the middle of the forest, on top of a hill. Show this to Gauss and watch his head explode.

The point is that the simple things that we take for granted everyday, are anything but. Man has created wondrous things, things which would be considered magical and god-like just a hundred years ago, never mind a thousand (you'd probably be burned as a witch). And watch my head explode as I try to wonder what we'll accomplish in the next hundred.

Take a minute, find something to wonder at. Let me know what you think is wonderful.

fReaK ouT!

* Or as Clarke put it "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

1 comment:

loky said...

i had the same feeling when i saw an airplane upclose for the first time. how could anyone have made such a heavy machine fly ??

just await & 50 yrs from now, we will have custom built bugs/organisms of all complexities.

as spinoza puts it, we ourselves are part of God, realized both in his thought/ideas faculty & in his physical activity.

High time, we should challenge Him.