Never Look Back

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Chapter 53

Two ultra-fast minicomputers, a server and three computer workstations, occupied a room kept at precisely sixteen degrees Celsius. While computer number one crunched data collected by probes and sensors, regulated mixers, slurry nozzle volumes and feeder bin cycles, computer number two used programmable logic controllers to direct ten compartmentalized segments. It also monitored the production line for system errors. Each time Steinberg interrupted the error analysis subroutine, computer two interpreted it as a critical error and initiated an auto-shutdown intended to avoid producing substandard wallboards. Computer two required the data collected by the first computer to run the automation sequences. Narrow weight variances, exacting chemical ratios and liquid volume measurements critical for achieving optimum density, thickness and rigidity, had to be maintained. Each wallboard’s weight and thickness had to be nearly identical to the previous. Each had to attain a pre-set hardness and be uniform within narrow parameters. The chemical binder was particularly sensitive to deviation within a short curing cycle. Auto-shutdown allowed for re-sequencing and saved thousands of dollars wasted in producing defective boards.

Steinberg had resolved the first problem: the variable list that was updated three times each run no longer appeared on the collection bulletin board. In its place, one of five random data lists ― innocuous material lists that he had created ― appeared. He varied the data but stayed within optimal production guidelines. No plant produced the same exact quality each run. Small variances were normal. The second problem, random quality control checks from the mother plant, thwarted his attempts to intercept and to nullify the generation of the data list and production recipe. The mother plant’s computer sent out a signal that instructed their computer to conduct a string of probe, sensor, moisture, thermal and radio microscope analysis. The results guided sequencing, optimized timing cycles, compiled the material data list and updated the Cornerstone Gyprock electronic posting board.

Lucien Gomez burst into the temperature-sensitive room. The suction of the sealed door, one that prevented dust from entering, sounded louder than three refrigerator doors opening in unison.

“You posted a factual production recipe half a dozen times! The list was vulnerable to public and corporate acquisition. Explain yourself.”

Wayne Steinberg looked up dispassionately.

“Whose presence lasted fewer than two hundred nanoseconds. Your master control log won’t tell you that, Lucien. It’s imperative that I reconstruct runtime conditions to test the contents of the holding registers.”

Gomez’s temper cooled. He did not know what a nanosecond was, but it had to be short.

“I don’t care if it was one nanosecond. You posted factual production recipes that might have been captured.”

“To ensure the amplitude attenuation is sent to a wave-shaping circuit, which develops a trigger pulse, I must conduct tests. Data in the holding registers are tricky to fake. The website is inaccessible. No harm; no foul. Regardless, it didn’t make it to the master collection website.”

“I warned you about the convention. We released password access. Wait until after nine in the evening when the convention closes to conduct such tests. You’ve eight days to finish.”

Steinberg smiled smugly. “I’m close.”

“No unexpected surprises?”

“None I can foresee, but by definition any surprise is unexpected. I’m writing a program that should intercept the quality control call routine and then insert instructions that’ll trigger the dummy list while keeping the working data accessible to our system. Sort of a quantum mechanics virtual memory trap.” Satisfaction entered his expression. “I’ll test it Sunday night. Late Sunday night.”

“Should intercept?”

“Nothing is certain on a trial run. The system wasn’t designed with diagnostics to check for a posted report. It was designed to announce variances outside specific parameters and if a report failed to be generated. There’s a huge difference. To compensate, I’m letting it be generated and then replaced before posting the original to our site, all the while keeping the original as a background quality test file. No one will be able to acquire our real-time production protocols without access to our server.”

Leaning back against a nearby desk, his thick and muscular arms crossed over his chest, Gomez said, “Auto shutdowns are the second item we need to discuss. Production is down due to stoppages. Shift supers are reporting quality has been severely compromised; recycling our deficient material is impacting the automated mixer’s ability to produce a homogenous slurry. The numbers aren’t promising.”

“I’m aware of the first two items, but not the third. The system wasn’t designed to compensate above thirty percent recycled material,” noted Wayne reading the row of figures that Gomez had passed to him.

“I see. Suggestions?”

“Not one that you want to hear,” Steinberg responded.

“Why spoil me now?”

“Given these numbers, our best option might be to take the defective wallboards, strip the paper and crush the core manually. We feed it back into the system at levels under thirty percent. Let the automation sequencer sort it out.”

“I’m with you so far,” said Gomez carefully. “What’s the hitch?”

“This report claims that we have more than 200 linear feet of deficient board to strip, crush, separate and feed through. That many linear feet divided by 8-foot lengths, multiplied by 50 pounds per unit totalling 1,250 pounds,” replied Steinberg punching calculator keys. “Ah, and 200 is an estimate.”

“As of when?”

“Yesterday. We started a new run this morning. The good news is the warehouse holds the entire last batch before we initiated Green protocol. Our distributors won’t go short. Given present demands and our warehouse stock, in less than two weeks we’ll be unable to meet current contracts.”

“We don’t miss quotas. Ever. I’ll authorize a crew to prep the deficient board for recycling automation. Keep on the conservative side. Compensate for twenty-five percent. Except for test protocols and recycling, we’re in standby mode. I’ll inform the shift supers of the transition. Coordinate your tests with the line foreman. I want you to head the diagnostic crew. See if you can get this line up to spec within the next seventy-two hours. I want a wide safety margin”

Gomez turned for the door. The climate-controlled room chilled him. He preferred Central America’s tropical climate. A few more years and he would retire wealthy beyond measure. Steinberg’s computer gibberish was irrelevant. Gomez reached the hermetically sealed door and turned back to meet Wayne’s eyes.

“Remember, late Sunday night.”

On the way to his office, Gomez sighted Raymond Fernandez exiting the second-floor stairwell. Fernandez owned the mother plant next door. He was also one of four owners of the new high-tech plant that was under Gomez’s directorship. Sporting a slim build, closing in on fifty-five years of age with only a hint of grey hair, Fernandez was one of those individuals who seemed always to be on the move with a thousand projects on the go at once. Extending his hand, Fernandez warmly acknowledged Lucien with a friendly nod.

“Raymond, how are things across the way?”

“It’s not my challenges that bring me here, Lucien. Though I’m suffering as well. God, how I loathe never-ending technological advances. No sooner do I update than a new protocol puts me right back where I started. Now the government is contemplating stricter measures via a heavier carbon tax and tighter particulate emissions. These proposed changes translate into additional environmental monitoring and clean-air inspections. If you ask me, it’s just another way for the government to add another level of bureaucrats to feed off the manufacturing sector’s successes.”

“Licensed stealing is what it is,” agreed Gomez.

“On other matters, I ordered 500 metric yards of hydrated calcium sulphate. Some genius determined that it should be dumped at your backdoor. The load has a pronounced yellow colour caused by sulphuric impurities and will begin to leach into the topsoil if we don’t do something about it, pronto. We have a minor catastrophe on our hands and need to address this situation immediately before sulphuric acid begins to soak into the ground.”

Gomez said, “The driver must have confused our plants. I’ll post signs and have a talk with the gatehouse to ensure it doesn’t happen again. In the meantime, I’ll send the payloader out to truck it over to you.”

Fernandez said, “Make sure they follow Environment Canada safety protocols to the letter. Fucking EC will be here sniffing around like bitches in heat if they learn we allowed hydrated calcium sulphate to be dumped on a permeable pad. Full respirators in case it converts to vapour. The entire agency will camp out on our doorsteps for the next two months if we fumble this one. It’ll be compared to the Burlington spill.”

“Thanks for the heads up. Any other measures I should know about?” When Fernandez shook his head, Gomez said, “I’m glad you’re here. I want to discuss quality control protocols. They’re playing havoc with my system. Let’s head to my office where I can pull up production tables and brief you fully.”

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