Pay no attention to the huge machine tool behind..

This fascinating post, part of a series on Chinese manufacturing that’s been picked up by BoingBoing, seems to be missing one very significant point. Yes, it’s all very cool; precision-machining billets of cold steel into incredibly perfect moulds that will be used to injection-mould the Chumby, blasting off the rough edges with an electron gun, then polishing them by hand.

But there’s nothing Chinese about that honking gurt machine tool; it’s a Röders TEC RP800, as in Röders GmbH, a 210-year old family metalworking firm from Soltau that boasts it’s both a leader in high-speed routing (the kind with steel bits, not digital ones..) and also a manufacturer of kitchenware favoured by the Bauhaus. They started making the machine tools for their own use, but developed it as a line of business after inventing a guidance mechanism that permitted them to work around 100 times faster. They also make moulds in China on a line of their own machines, in order to deliver to manufacturing clients there quickly; a curious invertion of the recent trend to bring textile manufacturing back closer to European or North American markets, in order to turn around new designs faster.

The Mittelstand, clearly, endures: even if the idea of handing over the company to the 29-year old heir might take some swallowing, Warsteiner beer probably won’t.

Web applications and geopolitics

I was recently fiddling with the German Federal Railways’ on-line European timetables, when I noticed something very strange. They have the best cross-European timetable, no doubt about it, but some odd things happen if you’re heading too far east. For example, when I asked it for a route from Paris to Tallinn, everything went a little bit weird..

To kick off, it suggested Nachtzug number 237 to Hamburg, which seemed fair enough. And, I was informed, I could take a limited number of bicycles with me on prior reservation. Things went wrong, though, at the next step. In Hamburg, there was a connection on EuroCity 31 to Copenhagen. You can see where this is going, can’t you – due north, essentially. There, I was to catch an X-2000 Swedish high-speed train to Stockholm and transfer to the docks by bus, before hopping a Silja Line ship to Turku in Finland. Presumably rested after the overnight crossing, I’d catch fast train no. R130 to Pasila/Böle, to meet a night train, D 31 (for some historical reason all the long-distance trains are numbered as German D-Züge) to St. Petersburg.

Arriving in the northern capital at 1.40 am, I’d cross it to the Vitebski station and spend three hours on the platform waiting for the express 649-KH to Tallinn. Riiight. In all, some 63 hours. The only alternative differed in that I’d have to change in Brussels as well.

Somehow, the great clockwork was set up to try and avoid leaving EU territory – it’s the only explanation I could come up with. If, after all, I forced it to route via Minsk it produced a far better result, down to 33 hours and four trains – and no ships! But left to its own devices, though, it did go to Russia. I am fascinated by this application pathology – it’s quite routine for timetable servers to produce absurdly complicated routes in order to save a few minutes somewhere, and in fact it’s an important problem in Internet engineering that the system’s basic rules can easily create inefficiently large numbers of hops unless something is done to enforce a less specific route.

Or is there some sort of assumption that nobody wants to go via Belarus baked into the code?