EDITORIAL: Pro robotic

If machines fill a void, why not use them?

August 05, 2014

There is really only one head nod I would consider smooth.

Welders own it. The cool cranium twitch happens right before they are about to light it up, and it throws the safety mask down with a little bit of determined attitude.

Robots do not have the corneas for this kind of split-second mojo. They do not have any corneas at all—not of the human kind. So there is a serious lack of shield flipping going on at the New NY Bridge site deep in the urban gut of New York City. The new span will replace the Tappan Zee Bridge, and at press time there was a cluster of robot welders on-site shooting sparks during the installation of 1,000 steel bridge piles, some 8 ft in diameter.

As expected, the local union was trying to yank the main computer chip out of the operation, claiming the project’s labor pact limits use of nonunion workers. Ben Brubeck, government affairs director for the Associated Builders and Contractors, said his members are not getting what they deserve—a job. However, the New York Thruway Authority, which is the project owner, is claiming that the due diligence was executed here. When Tappan Zee Constructors, the joint venture responsible for the creation of the New NY Bridge, executed initial welding tests to those of the human kind, only 23% passed. Expensive and intensive training bumped the qualified number to 35%. A warning sign needed to be planted in front of this learning curve, which may explain why workers have been taking a slower approach. The change in direction also has been a little drastic. Mike Cavanaugh, vice president of the New York City District Council of Carpenters, claims Tappan Zee Constructors has switched the welding methods a few times, and a change order was submitted less than a month prior to the permanent pile work.

I think you need to call the fighter bots off the New York City Thruway Authority and Tappan Zee Constructors. In fact, what one needs to do is turn its cornea on the vocational education of this nation. Whenever I am on the road and bridge construction site I am always hearing about the lack of skilled workers. Welders are probably at the top of this pyramid. There are never enough of them, at least those that are qualified enough to keep a mammoth span like the New NY Bridge free of any dangerous consequences down the line. You cannot just throw bodies at a problem. The union’s line of thinking has always been distorted—and selfish. The demand has always been to look for the union label when assigning jobs. Well, if more than half of those who were weld-tested for the New NY Bridge actually passed, or gradually did, then I believe the union would actually have a fight on its hands. Not even a quarter had what it takes in the early going, and to me that is unacceptable.

However, the New York City Thruway Authority and Tappan Zee Constructors are both still human after all, which means some of their actions are going to be questioned, like why four workers are needed just to monitor these robots. There were as many as 25 producing computer-generated results, adding up to 100 flesh-and-blood operators. Are these union approved? And if they are, is this what you would call a make good?

If vocational schools experience a revival perhaps this will solve our qualified-welder shortage. Then again, with video gaming continuing to take over the lives of the younger generation, maybe anything with a joystick will be the one to really thrive. I’ll give the nod to whoever, or whatever, is the expert. R&B

Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson is the editorial director of ROADS & BRIDGES magazine and has been covering the industry since 1999. He has won seven Robert F. Boger Awards for editorial excellence, including three in 2011. He also was the creator of the Top 10, Contractor's Choice Awards and Recycling Awards platforms, as well as ROADS & BRIDGES Live.

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