During lunchtime a while back, a demolition crew took down a nearby three-story building with a wrecking ball and lots of brute force, and over the next few days, even after the major excitement was over, I made it a practice to watch the continuing saga as a half-dozen separate crews tackled a variety of below-street-level tasks.
At one end of the street-corner plot—the entire construction site taking up an area no more than an acre, including the curbside lane of one of the intersecting roads—an excavator with a breaker attachment crunched away at the last remaining pieces of the previous foundation. “Take that … and that … and that,” the systematic pounding seemed to say as 3-foot-square slabs of concrete fell to the assault. At the opposite end of the lot, a survey crew concentrated on the newly dug—and 20-foot-deeper-than-before—subfloor. Between these bookends of activity, other individual crews busied themselves digging trenches, marking significant features, staging materials, and otherwise carrying out the subtasks of what was obviously an elaborate and carefully scripted plan.
In the midst of all of the activity—right there on center stage, so it seemed—sat an excavator, like the ringmaster of the whole show, gouging out great gobs of dirt and rock as it chomped its way down to the new elevation, dipping, biting, rotating, positioning, and dumping its mouthful of freshly minted material into a waiting truck before repeating the sequence in inexorable strides.
Each evolution involved four loads culminating in a honk that launched the target truck on its outbound run, simultaneously summoning its successor to the vacated position. As if controlled by this bit of musical chairs, another truck would seem to magically materialize to join the queue, allowing the process to proceed in a seamless manner through all of its separate activities. For all that was happening in and around the construction site, it was the ceaseless cycle of the excavator that set the pace, a metronome to the workings of an intricately choreographed system.
And it struck me that while this magnificent excavator with all of its engineering and technological excellence stands at the pinnacle of our civilization’s technical achievement and ingenuity, it is a cold and sterile assemblage of parts without the care and skill of its operator—someone like the man who in all the time I watched made not one discernable bobble in the control of his bucket. It was a sober vision for one who spends much of his time evaluating and extolling the virtues of machinery.
Yes, the machines are terrific, as are the attachments and productivity enhancements. I am constantly amazed when I realize how much better today’s equipment is than that of a decade ago or that the rate of improvement continues to accelerate rather than stagnate. But it is at moments like these that I am once again drawn to the realization that production begins, proceeds, and ends with the person in the cab, and no matter how wonderful the machinery is or will ever become, that’s where it will always remain.