Pick and place

This is the story of the worst job I ever had.

I was reminded by something I read today about London taxis and Uber:

[E]ssentially [Uber] drivers are meat puppets who are paid because legally, you need humans to operate cars right now. As soon as we don’t need those pesky humans to operate transportation infrastructure, you can be sure they’ll be done away with.

I was a meat puppet. I didn’t operate a car, however: my job was to be the fingers of a circuit board assembly robot.

Every day, I sat on a stool in front of the slightly sloped console of a large workstation. The console was fitted with a metal plate with holes for the components of a particular circuit, and the matching unpopulated board was placed on top. At the front of the console was a large bar that could be pressed—somewhat like a space bar—and a well containing ten or twenty identical components.

Every time I pressed the bar, a light from above moved to illuminate a particular component position on the board. My task was to take a component from the well and place it in the illuminated position, matching up the shape or any orientation indication lines. I repeated this process until all occurrences of that component had been placed, whereupon the machine rattled a bit, drew the tray into its belly, and replaced it with a similar tray containing the next component. And so on.

Press—grasp—insert—press—grasp—insert—press—(rattle, rattle, shuffle)—grasp—insert—press—grasp—insert

When the board was complete, I lifted it off, put it into a rack, took another board, and started all over again.

Meanwhile, the radio played a local radio station. Their stunted playlist of a dozen or so tracks, interrupted by frequent and banal adverts, cycled pitilessly. Actually, maybe that was the worst bit of all of it: one of the songs on that playlist was Free by Ultra Nate. ”’Cause you’re free / To do what you want to do.” I didn’t feel it, and I didn’t appreciate hearing it six times a day!

It was 1997. Surface mount assembly was beginning to become more prevalent, but many (perhaps even most) electronic circuits still used through-hole components. Making circuit boards could easily be automated (it’s essentially photography), and you could solder an entire board by floating it briefly on a lake of melted lead and tin. (Well, you could back then; they don’t use lead any more.) You could even precision-bend the legs of resistors and diodes in bulk, just by cranking a handle.

The part that wasn’t so easy to automate, apparently, was putting the components into the holes. For this, they needed hands.

They didn’t need brains, though. The hands were only there because robotic dexterity and vision wasn’t advanced enough to make automating the component insertion practical or affordable.

That specific job has probably been automated away by pick-and-place SMT processes, but there are still plenty of jobs in manufacturing that rely on people to work as the dexterous fleshy appendages of machines. They’re probably not much fun, or much good for you.

Despite being repetitive, boring, and uncomfortable, it paid reasonably well. I earned £4.85 an hour (and time and a half for overtime). That wasn’t too bad for 1997: that’s equivalent to about £8 today, and compares favourably to the current minimum wage for an eighteen year old of £5.03.