Falkirk Wheel, Panoramic view.

Falkirk Wheel, Panoramic view.
Image by Cameron Lyall, GNU license Wikimedia

14 June 2011

Communication, Logistics, and Industry--Dundee, the UK, and the US

With that long title, this will either be a really cool post or an aimless wander that exactly three people will understand. I am hoping for both.

During the walking tour of Dundee, our tour guide--Karen--made a very specific point about the rail system on the docks next to the HMs Unicorn: the rails were owned by the different companies that used the docks for trade. I am not sure anyone else noticed, but at least two of the tracks I saw were of different gauge, meaning each line could only be used by its own company.

When talking about the Tay Rail Bridge disaster in 1879, much was made about the lack of communication and oversight over and about the casting of the iron anchors. The folks at Wormit foundry most likely did the best job that they could, but a lack of communication about the design, the requirements of the bolt holes, and the proper casting of Cleveland iron all created weaknesses.

And then I saw this article in my Yahoo UK news feed. Buried part of the way into the article is a nice sentence that bears quoting:
"Working together doesn't work out if firemen aren't using the same radios, or the same breathing apparatus, or any number of apparently insignificant differences."

This all got me thinking about a huge government center not far from where I used to live: National Interagency Coordination Center. Due to a level of irony normally reserved for farce, their website is currently down, but the mission of the agency is to make sure everyone at a disaster has the same radios, the same food, the same power converters, and all of those "apparently insignificant" details.

So where does this all lead me? Well, it leads me to wonder about post-industrial (PI) growth and development. One aspect of PI is that huge industrial complexes are going away and that smaller, more flexible production is becoming more and more common. This creates an interesting situation for larger projects. The Tay Rail bridge was a huge undertaking in its day, and there was no one organization that had enough skill and resources to manage the entire project. As time rolled by, the custom rail systems on the docks and the standards for casting iron became more streamlined and standardized because huge companies had the resources and capital to get everyone on the same page. Now that level of ability is only achievable by a government agency, and even then it is a huge struggle.

PI has many positive facets, but there is also the possibility that smaller, more specialized organizations might lose some of the wide-ranging logistic and communication abilities that allow mega-projects to happen.

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