Eighteen years old, an enthusiastic but naïve engineering student, I was introduced by my training manager to Len, foreman of the general machine shop of Sturmey Archer bicycle gears. It was my first day in a factory. Len occupied an elevated glass windowed office, like an airfield control tower, so that he could over-see about two hundred people on the crowded, busy shop floor.
“First day, huh?” said Len. “I’ll introduce you to Des”. He led me to a quiet man with grey hair, dirty fingers and dressed in a stained brown warehouse coat. Des was bent over a black oily machine in the midst of the machine shop. After our introductions he methodically picked up a bicycle wheel axle from a tote bin, loaded it into a simple lathe-like machine and pulled a lever. There was a scream of tortured metal and another whisp of hot cutting oil fume was added to the miasma that hung over the whole shop. Des released the lever and expertly tossed the now-hot axle to lie neatly on top of rows of fellow axels in a neighbouring tote-bin. The whole operation took about thirty seconds. I watched as Des repeated this for about five minutes and then I asked some simple technical questions about the job, which Des gently answered. “Could this job be made more efficient?” I asked. “Well they introduced cheaper cutting tools two years ago but they wear out faster, so that’s probably a false economy but no one takes much notice. Tool changes don’t affect my piece-rate so it’s best to just get on with it.”
After a while I asked the Duke of Edinburgh question. “How long have you been doing this job Des?”. Des looked at the worn floor “This is my second set of floor boards, I’ve been at this machine ever-since I left the army; thirty years”. He talked a while about his fairly mundane army experiences. Gaining mutual trust we discussed our hobbies. “So what do you do in your spare time Des?” I asked. “I play a lot of chess, this year I’m chairman of the Nottingham Chess Society” said Des.
Matthew Peacock – Print Tribe