Kottke found a video of how they make those beautiful Japanese manhole covers. I don’t have much to add other than I found the number of manual, mechanical, and robot processes involved in fabricating a manhole cover interesting.

  1. Machine used to grab scrap metal
  2. Machine melts scrap metal
  3. Machine used to lift manhole cover form
  4. Human bolts form
  5. Machine used to move manhole cover form
  6. Machine used to pour molten metal
  7. Human removes impurities from molten metal
  8. Machine pours molten metal into large bucket
  9. Robot pours molten metal into form
  10. Remove manhole cover from form
  11. Machine shakes off excess from manhole covers
  12. Human puts manhole on carrying cage
  13. Robot power washes manhole cover
  14. Human wheels and stacks manhole covers
  15. Human puts manhole cover on grinding lathe
  16. Robot lathe trims excess
  17. Robot carries manhole cover stack away
  18. Human punches and checks holes
  19. Robot carries stack of manhole covers
  20. Robot shaves manhole cover
  21. Robot dips covers in coating
  22. Humans fill with paint
  23. Human attaches latches
  24. Human wraps and labels for delivery
  25. Humans and machine test for safety

That’s a lot of processes — especially for something that goes on a sewer. About half of these processes aren’t specific to manhole covers either, rather general “how to make cast iron” steps, but it’s still a zone in the factory each manhole cover needs to pass through.

Breaking those 25 processes down by who performed them…

  • 10 Human processes
  • 8 Machine processes
  • 7 Robotic processes

After decades of Japanese cybernetic enhancement, is this 40/30/30 split a predictor of the future of augmented work? Is this a formula for industrialized processes with a bespoke twist? It interests me to see an example where machines or robots do the majority of work but you still get to beautiful, bespoke’ish manhole covers out of the process.

That is… if you make it a priority. I’m sure Japanese municipalities could save lots of money by not having individualized manhole covers or by federally mandating a single manhole cover, but it’s great how local towns can turn a mundane piece of civic infrastructure into something interesting and unique, while still fitting within the parameters of a larger system of standards.

Uh-oh, I’m talking about design systems again.