A Foundry Foundation

I worked in an iron and steel foundry when I was in college.  Studying computer systems at the same time might seem like a completely incompatible activity, but there were some strong and insightful parallels.  Lessons learned then have often returned as useful benchmarks for thinking through spatial problems, design decisions and business priorities.  While nothing I encountered on the job was explicitly geographic, it is always worth remembering that there must be a value proposition in everything we do in GIS.

To provide just a little context, foundries produce cast metal objects.  This was a sand casting operation which means the mold is made of sand that is hard-packed around a positive pattern.  Then the pattern is withdrawn, leaving a cavity that is a negative impression of that shape.  A finished mold has at least two, and sometimes many, individual parts that must be assembled before it is filled with molten metal.  As it cools, the metal contracts and fractures the mold.  After the casting is solid, it is "shook out" of the sand, cleaned, trimmed and machined into a finished product.  The mold is temporary, but patterns can be reused indefinitely.

Maintaining the patterns was my job.  A computer program is also a pattern.  It's a set of instructions that allow a common process to be repeated again and again.  If there is a defect in the pattern, there is always a defect in the casting.  If there's a defect in the process, changing the pattern will never fix it.  That is a great troubleshooting lesson.

Building foundry patterns, and "rigging" them with passages through which metal flows and cools, provided some other interesting analogies to the art of programming.  For example, a dimension can be temporarily stored in a caliper just like a value is stored in a variable.  The sequence of operations is critical (...measure before you cut!).  The design and assembly of patterns and programs involve many such cause-and-effect considerations.  The pattern for a convoluted shape might include many separate parts which need well-defined interfaces.  This is anologous to the way computer code is organized into functional units called "classes" and how those classes need to fit unambiguously together. There is actually a lot of object-relationship thinking that goes on in both worlds.

Geometry is another area in which the foundry helped in unexpected ways.  Having had some practical experience with trigonometry and volumetric calculations has proved invaluable in sorting out many problems in GIS.  Positive and negative shapes are another brain teaser that correlates to figuring out irregular and disjointed multipolygons.

On a more abstract level, it is clear and obvious that defining a complex shape in metal requires billions of individual grains of sand.  That is not at all unlike the billions of 1s and 0s that are needed to describe geometric shapes in a spatial file or database.  In fact, a foundry operation expends a huge amount of time, energy and equipment in simply moving sand around.  A GIS program is always pushing a lot of data around, too.  The efficiency with which such concealed operations are performed is hugely important.

During my foundry tenure, I had the opportunity to setup a pattern database and to install new production control software.  There were plenty of challenges and some surprising solutions.  The best ideas and suggestions often came from a molder, a welder, a swing grinder or the forklift driver.  We accomplished the task together.

Geographic Information Systems are, at their heart, information systems.  They involve the communication of abstract ideas between different individuals and strive to achieve a new perspective that enlightens everyone.  My foundry experience instilled these core truths about building information systems:

  • Every organization is unique
  • Innovation is always required
  • Solutions must be collaborative
  • Everyone is an expert at something

There are certainly many wonderful paths that lead to a career in GIS.  This was a key leg of my journey and I would recommend it highly.  I learned every bit as much there as I did in college.

Posted in Business on Aug 15, 2016