Engineering archaeology

post by NancyLebovitz · 2014-03-20T16:38:36.544Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 15 comments

Here's an account by a retired engineer of what happened when his old company wanted to streamline a process in the factory where he used to work.

People only knew how to keep the factory going from one day to the next, but all the documentation was lost-- the factory had been sold a couple of times, and efforts at digitization caused more to get lost. Even the name of the factory had been lost.

Fortunately, engineers keep more documentation than their bosses allow them to. (Trade secrets!) And they don't throw the documentation away just because they've retired.

I've been concerned about infrastructure neglect for a while, and this makes me more concerned. On the other hand, instead of just viewing with alarm, I'd like to view with quantified alarm, and I don't have the foggiest on how to quantify the risks.

Also, some of the information loss is a result of a search for efficiency. How can you tell when you're leaving something important out?



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comment by moridinamael · 2014-03-20T17:18:17.772Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The company I work for specializes in buying neglected oil and gas properties from giant oil companies and, basically, performing archaeology to figure out what the giant oil company was doing so we can do it better. It's quite fun poring through a well file that goes back a hundred years, starting with hand-written oil rates, margin notes and initials by untold numbers of engineers and field hands. The solution to what you think is an engineering problem - say, anomalously high gas production in the historic record - can sometimes be literally a historical phenomenon, like, everybody was flat-out lying about about gas production during that time period because of something called the "80's Gas Wars."

It sounds like the mystery engineer worked at a very old probably borderline economical plant. The fact that the plant was so maligned by management can be read as an indication that it was a very marginal enterprise. One gets the sense that some vice president flipped a coin regarding the decision of whether to do the debottlenecking project or just shut the plant down and save on manpower. I say this to make the following point: infrastructure decay happens to infrastructure that kind of sucks. In a way, this is part of the circle of life, the work of the invisible hand, or whatever. While this plant was falling into decrepitude, other newer ones with better technology were being built according to more modern best practices by different companies. If this plant had mattered, I don't think this would have been as likely to happen.

I am certain that someone will point out to me an example of a high-value industrial work that was allowed to fall into decrepitude and neglect, but I do think there's a causal relationship between neglect and uselessness. The reason I am holding forth on this is that I have heard so many dozens of engineers whine about how their projects were mistreated by management and always silently ached to reply, "So what? Your project sucked. Management is trying to optimally allocate resources. Grow up." There, I feel better.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2014-03-21T01:55:30.495Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The other possibility is something so reliable that when it does go down no one is quite sure how to get it back up, sometimes people might even forget it's there.

comment by Will_Newsome · 2014-03-24T02:02:34.197Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

And then they turn it off and bam, nobles getting beheaded.

comment by D_Alex · 2014-03-25T09:27:13.087Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am certain that someone will point out to me an example of a high-value industrial work that was allowed to fall into decrepitude and neglect

Ok, since no one else has to date, I will. My example is the Longford Gas Plant, one of the largest and most profitable in the world. It processed pretty much the entire gas oitput of Australia's richest oil province, and supplied virtually all the gas and LPG needs of the city of Melbourne. The revenues generated by the plant were several million dollars PER DAY. Still, the American bungee-management decided to save costs by cutting maintenance "'till it hurts".

Then this happened:

I worked at Longford in 1999-2000, on a backlog of modifications and maintenance requests, some dating back to 1979. Documentation decay was well and truly happening. One example that comes to mind is that certain drawings of underground piping, carrying gas and LPG, were lost. Excavations were a bit of a problem...

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-03-21T00:21:10.962Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not convinced that the engineering archology study in this case is about a factory that did suck. Quite the contrary it appears. It worked so well that it was worthwile to copy its success.

comment by shminux · 2014-03-20T18:38:57.858Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can't resist quoting this:

as an external consultant, I'm not allowed to know some of the trade secrets in the documents. The internal side of the team needs to handle the sensitive process information, and be careful about how that information crosses boundaries when talking to the external consultants. Unfortunately, the internal team doesn't know what the secrets are, while I do. I even invented a few of them, and have my name on some related patents. Nonetheless, I need to smuggle these trade secrets back into the company, so that the internal side can handle them. They just have to make sure they don't accidentally repeat them back to me.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-03-21T13:00:04.395Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

From (which in genral isn't that much related comes this quote:

Entire occupations that were previously unattractive and declining, such as petroleum engineering in the 1980s and 1990s, have rather suddenly become attractive and high-paid—due to increased energy prices and new technologies for domestic extraction of oil and gas.

This means that trusting on evolution to weed out 'unproductive factories' will work only over many cycles of this - until companies learn to document the really important things.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-03-21T00:29:18.613Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is difficult to know which knowledge to preserve to which grade. I wish I could have a printed copy of the 'most important' Wikipedia articles.

At least I bought a Wikipedia DVD in case I'm offline but I'm not sure it will help much to restore civilitation in a real disaster.

Some things should be on paper. Some things should be on nickel like the LongNow foundation does. But which?

Actually I once wrote a proposal in the MetaPedia for that but guess what: I couldn't find it again the last time I looked for it. The whole structure had changed. We have no standardized way to tag digital documents to be more (or less) important than other documents (and such a relative classification which could be automatically resolved to a total order is much better than any fixed absolute scheme - guess why).

comment by Armok_GoB · 2014-03-22T18:03:18.441Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

wouldn't something like microfilm make more sense; not reliant on a special reader (just include normal-sized instructions for making a crude microscope) and still decent storage density. Maybe etch it into aluminum and roll it up in giant rolls.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-03-22T19:46:34.947Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Of course. It's one of the many conceivable in-betweens.

comment by Metus · 2014-03-20T18:16:35.441Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Much of the necessary knowledge to complete tasks is not written down but 'stored' in the organisation completing the tasks explicitly including the people actually doing it. If you'd remove all people from any larger project - ignoring that the machinery might decay in the meantime - no outsider could find out the proper way to get the project running in any meaningful time.

The question is if this phenomenon is a necessity out of some kind of principle or if it is a lack of discipline or something I haven't thought of yet. I hope it is not the first because that is bad news for catastrophic events and restoring the former, more prosperous state.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-03-20T18:41:42.710Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Much of the necessary knowledge to complete tasks is not written down but 'stored' in the organisation completing the tasks explicitly including the people actually doing it.

I think this is a common case but not the only one.

The counter-example that came to mind is franchises. When you buy a franchise (e.g. a McDonalds) you do not only get a brand name, suppliers, etc. You get an explicit set of written-down business processes (the "three-ring binder" in Snowcrash terms). Part of the whole point of franchises is that you can "complete tasks" in a reasonable manner when starting from scratch, without any intangible institutional memory or knowledge in the heads of long-term workers.

comment by Metus · 2014-03-20T19:14:22.431Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't know how explicit running a McDonalds is but this is a very interesting point. This lends credence to my belief that it is not out of some fundamental principle that necessary knowledge to run a plant is not written down.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-03-20T19:57:03.114Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it has to do with complexity limits. Running things by the book and solely by the book is possible only as long as the overall complexity is manageable.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2014-03-21T01:41:31.799Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I hope it is not the first because that is bad news for catastrophic events and restoring the former, more prosperous state.

Depends on the catastrophic event. One that destroyed the machinery but left most of the people alive isn't hard to rebuild from, e.g., how Europe and Japan managed to rebuild after WWII.