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Ford Introduces Assembly Line

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 88th installment in the series. 

October 7, 1913: Ford Introduces Assembly Line

Although engineers had been tinkering with internal combustion engines in “horseless carriages” since the late 19th century, it was the cheap, reliable Ford Model T that truly opened the automobile age. In the four years after the first Model T rolled out of Henry Ford’s Piquette Plant factory in Detroit on September 27, 1908, production jumped from 10,660 in 1909 to 82,388 in 1912.

Model T sales were almost doubling annually, but Ford wasn’t satisfied: In a country with a burgeoning population growing wealthier every year, he knew there was huge unmet demand for the status and convenience afforded by a family automobile. The key to tapping this demand was simple: producing vastly more vehicles at an ever-cheaper price. Ford vowed: “I will build a car for the great multitude … it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one.”

Ford had already sped up production by simplifying and standardizing parts, but the crucial step came on October 7, 1913, when the company started using a moving assembly line for the Model T chassis at its new factory in Highland Park, Michigan. Following some earlier tests with assembly line production for individual components, the chassis itself would now be towed across the factory floor by a rope attached to a steam-powered windlass.

Although Ford is often credited as the inventor of the assembly line, it was actually a team effort by his top executives, including Charles E. Sorensen (“Cast-Iron Charlie”), Clarence Avery, Ed Martin, and Walter Flanders, who together pioneered what would later be termed industrial rationalization or “Fordism.” Ford and his managers broke the Model T construction process down into 45 separate tasks, handled in sequence by around 140 workers positioned on both sides of the tow rope (later conveyor belt), each concentrating exclusively on one job.

By enabling workers to become proficient at a single task, the assembly line technique accelerated production while decreasing the level of skill and training needed, thus increasing the pool of potential employees to draw from. The time required to build one Model T fell from over 12 hours to just under six hours, then three hours not long after; within a year additional improvements reduced it to a mere 93 minutes. With 52,000 workers forming three 14,000-person shifts, by the 1920s new Model T cars were rolling off the assembly lines at the rate of one every 24 seconds.

Mass production was accompanied by a steep decline in price: where the first model cost $950 in 1908 and the 1912 model cost $690, the price for a new Model T dropped to $550 in 1913, $440 in 1915, and just $360 in 1916 (an especially impressive achievement considering the effects of wartime inflation). With prices tumbling, sales soared from 170,211 vehicles in 1913 to 735,020 in 1917, and by 1918 half of all cars on the road in the U.S. were Model T’s of various types. Ultimately, 15 million Model T’s would be sold around the world.

The rise of car culture literally transformed the American landscape, as private groups, cities, states, and eventually the federal government began pouring money into building and improving roads, funded by taxes on gasoline—one of the few instances in American history where there was broad public support for new taxation. Tennessee’s chief tax collector summed it up in 1926: “Who ever heard, before, of a popular tax?” In fact Americans were so eager to get on the road that some of the first national highways, or “auto trails,” were actually the work of private (or hybrid private-public) groups like the Lincoln Highway Association and the National Old Trails Road Association, both formed in 1912; the Pikes Peak Ocean to Ocean Highway Association, formed in 1914; and the Yellowstone Trail Association, formed in 1918.

Meanwhile assembly line techniques were critical to the war efforts of all the major combatants in the First World War—a “total war” or “war of production,” where advantage went not necessarily to the side with the best generals or bravest soldiers, but rather the biggest and best-organized industrial base.

Among the Allies, French industrial giant Citroën built a munitions plant with a moving assembly line at Quai Javel in 1915, where 13,000 workers were soon producing 35,000 shells a day; the same year saw French aircraft makers create assembly lines for fighter plane engines in new factories at Toulouse (still the center of the French aviation industry today) while Italian industrial concern Fiat used assembly line techniques for its new vehicle factory at Lingotto. Back in France, the Vénissieux plant opened by Berliet and Renault in 1917 employed 10,000 workers on assembly lines producing trucks and tanks.

Inevitably, the adoption of assembly line techniques went hand in hand with a huge increase in power consumption, and electricity production became another key front in the “war of production.” In Britain total power consumption doubled from 2.5 billion kilowatt-hours in 1913 to 4.9 billion in 1918, while Italy also doubled from 2 billion to 4 billion, and Germany jumped from 8 billion to 13 billion over the same period.

The introduction of assembly lines (along with the loss of skilled workers to the military) also shook up industrial labor relations: in Britain, unions agreed to suspend rules about which employees could do what tasks, allowing managers to break down complicated jobs—previously performed by a few skilled workers—into smaller tasks that could be handled by unskilled laborers.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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