These dark satanic mills

The legacies of the Industrial Revolution haunt some cities, but the intellectual fight for the future goes on.

Th 0607vsd Andywilson

The legacies of the Industrial Revolution haunt some cities, but the intellectual fight for the future goes on.

Last month marked somewhat of a turning point in the town where I was born. It was one that the local free newspaper called “a final end to the dark dismal industrial past of Bedford.” Providing a positive spin on a negative event, the local scribbler had decided that by tearing down the old W. H. Robertson factory and replacing it with condominiums, the town council was doing everyone a favor-everyone, it seems, except those that could remember the history of the company, why it was it built, or what it represented.

For more than 20 years, my father worked as a chief draftsman at the company, designing very large rolling mills that were then made on-site and shipped to Wales to make high-grade steel. During wartime, this steel was shipped to factories in the North of England to make tanks and other armaments for our troops battling in continental Europe.

When I was just eight years old, my brother and I were lucky enough to visit the factory. In a building about the size of four football fields, very large cranes moved semi-finished parts of steel rolling mills across the plant. But in October 1999, British Steel merged with Koninklijke Hoogovens to form Corus. Ironically, Hoogovens was originally founded in The Hague to enable Dutch industry to become less dependent on imports. In doing so, it made the UK more dependent on imported steel, with the result that the factory that my father worked for was no longer needed. Last month, the factory was leveled to the ground using demolition equipment built in Japan.

Upstate New York bears a striking resemblance to my hometown, although on a much larger scale. And it was here that I found myself on yet another road trip to visit many of the companies that populate the cities of Rochester and Syracuse.

Like Bedford, the forces of technology advancements and global trade have also affected these towns. Perhaps the most obvious is the effect of the declining film business in Rochester. While Kodak’s dark buildings stand as proud reminders of the company’s film-based past, the eerie air of a town still in decay predominates in the houses, streets, and factories that surround the city. It’s almost as if the town has been hit with a technology bomb that no one saw coming.

Unfortunately, it has not been just the winds of technological change that have hindered progress. Numerous companies that now offer lenses for machine vision and security systems are based in Rochester. Many of them freely admit that due to cheap offshore labor, it is far more cost-effective to have their products built in the Far East and shipped back to the United States for quality control and distribution.

Luckily, there was some good news to report from my trip. According to Stephen Noble of Kodak, the company’s Image Sensor Group is doing very well and will be introducing some exciting new products in the near future. Over at Geospatial Systems, Kevin Kearney has developed cameras specifically for remote-sensing applications. “And what better place than Rochester,” he says “to design and build lenses for these cameras?”

System-integrator Rogers Associates was just as busy building automated machine-vision systems to inspect engine blocks. There, in a factory that resembled that of the late W. H. Robertson, Mark Ely, a senior controls engineer, described the work he and his colleagues had accomplished for a number of automotive vendors. Company president Jeff McFaddan was not sitting around waiting for business to arrive either. For the first time, his company demonstrated its capabilities at last month’s ATX East show at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City.

With the decline in domestic high-volume manufacturing, specialized companies such as Geospatial Systems and Rogers Associates are focusing on specific products that command a high premium. At the same time, these companies are increasing local employment in much needed areas. Despite their efforts, one is still left to wonder how long these dark satanic mills have left to stand.

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Andy Wilson
Editor
andyw@pennwell.com

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