The following is one of two stories we gathered during the Pitch a WTF panel at Penguicon. As I'm sure you'll come to understand, the submitter wanted both them and their company to remain anonymous. Thank you to everyone who came out and inflicted their horrors in person.


Amalie M. heard a loud clanking sound coming from the back of the factory, near the ovens, where there ought not be any clanking whatsoever. Curious, and a bit worried, she grabbed a hard-hat and headed onto the floor.

*whirrrrr*… *whoosh*… *clang*

Before she could take a step onto the floor, the factory's operator came bounding from around the corner. The old greybeard was moving faster than she'd ever seen. "Hey," he called out, nearly skidding to a stop, standing between her and the stairs to the catwalk. "What're you doing here?"

"Scheduled maintenance of the equipment," she said, stating the obvious. Her company provided all the robots and machine vision equipment for their client's automobile engine factory. "Same as every month."

"You usually come on the fifteenth," he retorted.

"It is the fifteenth."

"Oh. Damn." he said, looking lost, shaking his head. "Working here alone, just me and the robots-- I lose track of the days."

*whirrrr*… *whoosh*… *clang*

Amalie cringed. The sound rang in her ears-- so much louder now. Nothing on the floor should make a sound like that. She looked up at the operator, who slumped a bit.

"Yeah, so I bet you're wondering what that is. The furnace-to-finisher conveyor belt broke down a couple weeks ago."

A broken conveyor belt? That literally didn't sound right. "Why didn't you call for a service visit?"

He huffed. "I'm perfectly capable of fixing my own problems without racking up your billable hours."

"You aren't certified to work on the equipment," she said, her ears still ringing, "It sounds like you made it a whole lot worse!"

He took a step towards her. "I learned your system well enough. I used to build robots you know. And now--" his shoulders slumped, "-- now I just pick up after them. Give an old man a break, will you? I spend all my day forklifting pallets onto transport trucks. I just wanted to do something useful."

Amalie sighed. "Fine. I appreciate your effort, but whatever you've done, I'm probably going to have to undo and fix to spec."

The operator nodded. "Of course, of course. You don't have to worry about it. I'll even take it all offline for you. Why don't you get a coffee across the street while I do that?" He stepped forward, shooing her towards the door.

"Ok, but--"
*whirr* *whoosh*… *CLANG*

The sound stuck in her ears-- but worse, something caught the corner of her eye. Just a flash of something, beyond the machines. A metallic blur. What the hell?

She spun around the operator and dashed up the steps, ignoring the calls for her to stop. She could see the entire factory floor from the catwalk. She spotted the broken conveyor belt right away-- the last belt in the line, between the blast furnace and the pallet stacker. The conveyor belt had buckled, and the motors were exposed. She could see plenty wrong with it-- but what worried her the most was that she couldn't see what this 'fix' was. And yet, the assembly line was running. A neat pile of engine block casings were stacked at the end of the line, and a new one was rolling fresh out of the blast furnace.

The operator caught up to her, leaning heavily on the hand rail. He stood beside her as she watched. "I'll show you what someone 'not certified on the equipment' can do."

The industrial robot at the head of the broken conveyor belt clamped onto the aluminum casing, and passed it though a series of sensors and cameras, using its machine vision to ensure all dirt and foundry oil had been blasted clean. If the engine block failed inspection, it'd be put on a conveyor belt back into the blast furnace. Otherwise, it'd be put on a different belt-- the broken belt-- and sent down the line for finishing.

All the right lights flashed. The engine had passed.

"How?" she mused. The robot went still, as if in thought, while the pallet robot waited patiently.

"They're using the factory's network to run a program I wrote," the operator happily answered. "Their sensors and machine vision are working out the telemetry data."

"What telemetry data?" she asked, confused.

"The usual. Angle. Velocity. Spin."

Before Amalie could even fathom what those data points meant, the second robot hunched into an abnormal position, and signaled 'ready' back to the inspection bot--

-- which then implemented the data into a trajectory, wound up with a *whirr*, and threw the engine block overhand across the 100' gap.


The receiver caught it with a *clang*, and calmly put it into the carrier, and waited for the next casing.

Amalie ran for The Big Red Button, slammed it, and shut down the entire factory floor. Silence filled the air-- and her mouth as she struggled to find the right words. She glared at the operator.

"What?" he said with a shrug, "I was able to figure out your system well enough to do that all by myself. It's been working perfectly for weeks. There's no problem."

"Oh, I think OSHA would disagree," she said, "If they found out. Which they won't. Ever."

Before she deleted the custom program from the system, Amalie took a copy of it. The program wouldn't ever be used to chuck engine blocks again-- but it would get a certain operator onto the short list the next time a specialist position opened.

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