The Triumph Of The Crayolatariat
July 26, 2010 7:38 AM   Subscribe

The Triumph Of The Crayolatariat - a reflection on the iconic status of the old Crayola factory tour. You can take the new tour and see boots worn by an actual worker, but the manufacturing process is now a performance piece.

Bonus fun fact: The boots belonged to Crayola's senior crayon maker, Emerson Moser. When he retired he announced that he was actually color blind!
posted by Joe in Australia (19 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Great article. The colored-in Marx with happy rainbow seals it.

Fortunately, kids have been reversing this -- the alienation of man from the product of his labor -- by ingesting crayons at an alarming pace. Mmmm, Crayola blue.
posted by chavenet at 7:47 AM on July 26, 2010

Thanks for that 'iconic' link. I think I just had flashbacks.
posted by komara at 7:52 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

From the first link:
Crayola has eliminated the labor. Instead of the five older, unionized workers seen in the Sesame Street film, the Factory performance is run by one young retail/service industry employee earning minimum wage.

Not really. Instead of five semi-skilled laborers schlepping batches of molten wax around by hand, the high-speed machines require loading, maintaining and repairing. The people who do that aren't just higher skilled but those skills are probably more portable, too.

I imagine higher-paid, too. But that's just a guess.
posted by codswallop at 7:58 AM on July 26, 2010

Fetishism of the commodity aside, I bet that place smelled awesome. There's nothing like the aroma of a freshly minted crayon.
posted by phunniemee at 7:58 AM on July 26, 2010

Wait wait wait. They physically recreate the video but that video is no longer an accurate portrayal of the factory? Was it at the time? That's depressing.
posted by DU at 8:01 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

The mechanization of crayon-making in the Mr Rogers clip reminds me of this (industrial) and this (slightly less industrial).
posted by chavenet at 8:05 AM on July 26, 2010

I found the not-actually-a-factory "factory" at Hershey Park pretty depressing, too. Crayola's is better, I suppose, in that it actually still shows something resembling the production line -- even if it's not the production line anymore, and resembles the modern process in the same way that the idyllic farm on the front of a milk carton, with the red barn and the green grass, resembles a modern fully-automated robotic dairy farm -- Hershey doesn't even bother to halfass it to that degree. There's just a video, I think, and then it's straight on to the free candy. Maybe that's better. I guess it's more honest, in a way.

The excuse that it's all for safety/liability ("blame the lawyers") may hold some water, but I think there's more to it; it wouldn't be that hard to construct the actual factory with some sort of titular observation gallery. I've been to recycling plants -- practically the definition of 'hot, dirty, dangerous' industrial workplaces -- that offered tours to school groups without getting sued into oblivion. (Going to one was a standard field trip when I was in middle school in the town where I grew up, and I've been told still is. You don't actually go out on the floor, of course, you see it through windows.) It's hardly impossible and would probably cost less than maintaining a Potemkin factory for the benefit of visitors.

The difference seems to be something approaching embarrassment over the new factories, on the part of Hershey and Crayola. The recycling plant was happy, and the employees seemingly quite proud, to show off their state-of-the-art factory, presumably because without it they would all be unemployed and the recyclables would simply be trash. What's not to be proud of there? But Hershey's and Crayola's new factories clash with public expectations and undoubtedly accompanied huge workforce reductions due to automation. So rather than let the public see the way the goods they consume are actually produced -- mostly by machines, with a human being scattered here and there to do the tasks that can't quite be automated (yet) -- we get Disneyesque "discovery centers" and some hand-wavey excuses about health and safety.

Or perhaps it's because we demand that anything aimed at children will be mindlessly apolitical, and it would be nearly impossible to tour a modern U.S. factory without stumbling into awkward territory, e.g. "where did all the people go?" Better to keep a fake factory, with a fake production line and fake employees, around than have to give a straight answer to that one.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:25 AM on July 26, 2010 [5 favorites]

As a frequent though unwilling visitor to Hershey's Chocolate World, I can relate. Chocolate World isn't even a sim-factory; it's like being delivered through the antiseptic, clean-lined Crate & Barrel version of manufacturing. You hop on a moving chariot (four to a car, please, and get on QUICKLY) and are treated to an eight-minute labor-alienating extravaganza. Mechanized singing cows peer out of faux-Pennsylvania barns, praising "Hershey's MILK CHOCOLATE" as the narration booms out overhead. Next stop, a glimpse at the train station where materials are delivered (with nary a person in sight) and then a whirlwind tour of breaking, conching, melting, pouring, wrapping -- all done by machine, without any hint that there are actual people involved in the town's biggest business. Close to the end? A big-screen look at Hershey's products in Chicago, New York, L.A. Then it's off the ride, quickly, quickly, one small sample to a customer, and here's a picture of you on the ride if you want to buy one! Elsewhere in the building you can see a movie about Hershey's or make your own treat: "Using real factory equipment, you choose the ingredients and watch your candy bar actually being made on the assembly line. You can also design your own wrapper - and add a personal message!"

How different is this simulacrum from the place where the chocolate is actually made? Last summer, I had the rare and wonderful opportunity to take my son to see the real factory, the honest-to-goodness production lines that turn out thousands of sweet treats every minute. And it looked nothing like what the tourists see.

You can smell the chocolate in the air as you approach the factory. Outside the building, neatly manicured topiary spells out "HERSHEY COCOA" and Kiss-shaped streetlights line the avenue. Inside the factory, there's a pristine, modern conference room, complete with durable office carpeting, tidy seating and a computer-run projection screen. Just beyond the conference room is the real entrance to the factory, which starts at the guard booth. Right above the spot hangs a repro photograph of the factory's groundbreaking; the first shovel hit the dirt exactly where security sits.

And that's where things get interesting. Everyone walks around in pastel blue hairnets and dark blue coveralls. Signs advising ear protection and other safety measures are posted on every vertical surface. Metal bathtubs on wheels sit outside ancient freight elevators. The safe walking zone is demarcated by long strips of what looks like electrical tape, scuffed by thousands of shoes and carts and casters. Down a dark and cavernous hallway, tall stacks of flat cardboard boxes for syrup, Hershey Bars, Rollos and Kisses loom, like the final scene of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." A particular portion of the hallway is made of 2x4s, driven headfirst into the floor long ago to support the weight of machinery, a kind of industrial parquet. The facility, 25 separate buildings and 2 million square feet united under a single roof over the years, feels comfortably worn in rather than clinically modern.

The machinery is efficient and speedy, though there's something pleasingly steampunkish and retro about the silver metal and black aesthetic. Overhead conveyor belts carry pieces of candy, which are dumped onto an inclined belt for sorting and wrapping. Christmas is coming, so the Kisses were being wrapped in red, green and silver foil.

But every machine has a person behind it, watching, examining, making sure. My favorite worker was the Kiss lady, who rapidly plucked out the unwrapped Kisses and discarded them. (Incidentally, imperfect chocolates that have not been in contact with non-food surfaces are sent back to be re-worked, while the rest of the imperfect pieces are sent to bins marked "Animal Feed." Hershey sells the latter to local farmers as a feed supplement. Hello, chocolate milk!)

A little worn; a little feverish with speed; a little dingy and shadowed in some places. Distressed with the use of years...and better for it. No singing cows here. Just hairnets and ladies of a certain age, smiling at the smallest visitors--children are a sight rarely seen on the floor--and the feel of work and keeping up with the machines' demands. And all of it so much more human than the corporate face of Willy Wonka.

P.S. There will be no more opportunities for behind-the-scenes tours. Hershey plans to close the original plant and move production elsewhere in town, to a newer, more modernized plant. Up to 600 jobs will be lost. Goodbye to all that.
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:26 AM on July 26, 2010 [16 favorites]

My favorite worker was the Kiss lady, who rapidly plucked out the unwrapped Kisses and discarded them.

The Canadian show "How It's Made" is pretty great. But the thing I find most informative is the weird stuff that hasn't been automated. Like, why can they mechanically make and wrap a chocolate kiss but they can't automatically discard an unwrapped one? And there's an episode of the show where there's a guy whose job it is to turn pants inside out. Or another one, I think it's balloons, where the entire process is automatic...except for the ladies at the end who blow them up to check for leaks.

Every time I find one of these jobs I wonder why it exists. Union pressure? Needed to keep a human in the loop for some reason? No technology for that step when they built the factory? Or it just cost less to pay for a person to do that? Or are these fundamentally unautomatable tasks?

(There are also whole products that really are produced by (anonymous) hand. Like hockey sticks and boots and a bunch of other random stuff.)
posted by DU at 8:47 AM on July 26, 2010

I just want those boots. They'd be so cool-looking, especially on a hot summer day when you leave multi-colored bootprints everywhere you walk.
posted by xingcat at 8:56 AM on July 26, 2010

Was it just me or did they play that Mr. Rogers episode with the crayon factory over and over and over again? I finally figured out how to read the TV Guide and managed to not be outside playing during Mr. Rogers showtime but it seemed like they practically only ever played that one episode.
posted by XMLicious at 8:58 AM on July 26, 2010

The people who do that aren't just higher skilled but those skills are probably more portable, too.

And there are a lot less of them. If that wasn't the case -- if there were just as many people working in the new factory than in the old one, or even if the total compensation of the machine operators were as high as the total of the old employees, for a plant of the same production capacity -- Crayola wouldn't have built the new one.

Companies don't go out and buy millions of dollars of complex machinery just for fun. They do it because it's cost effective. You only automate if you can eliminate enough labor to pay for the capital investment plus maintenance of the machine. (Okay, in reality it's a little more complex, as you have to factor the opportunity cost into the decision, but it all boils down to the machines being cheaper.)

But the thing I find most informative is the weird stuff that hasn't been automated.

Yeah that is one of the parts of the show I find interesting as well. A lot of times it's moving items from one machine to another, or pick/pack/sort functions.

A problem I've actually worked on is handling paper. When you send in a bank deposit or a credit card application, chances are it'll be opened by a human. They may use a machine to help them with part of the process, but it'll probably be touched by human hands at least once on its way into a scanner. Slitting open the envelope is easy for a machine, sucking pieces of paper past a scan sensor is easy for a machine. But opening up folded pieces of paper and stacking them up nicely, and dealing with misfolded sheets, paperclips, staples, the odd chinese takeout menu that gets stuffed in, various sizes of paper ... suddenly you reach the breakeven point where it's better to have somebody sitting there earning minimum wage and listening to their iPod all day than try to automate it.

I suspect that detecting and picking unwrapped Kisses falls into a similar category. You might be able to get a machine to do it reasonably well under certain conditions, but if your defect rate is required to be really low, and you do things like change the color of the wrappers throughout the year, and if the Kisses don't come down the line all in the same orientation, it might require a really expensive machine-vision system and pick/place robot to get right. So the lady gets to keep her job this month.

A while back there was a video floating around of a robot picking up and folding a towel. It's pretty painful to watch, and that's at fifty times actual speed. Something trivial for a human, like picking up a pair of pants out of a bin and turning them right-side-out, would be beyond the limits of possibility for current technology. Still, given the way technology has progressed in the past few decades, I would not want to get complacent if I was a pants-turner-outer either.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:32 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Kiss orientation shouldn't be too difficult given the extreme asymmetry, but I hadn't considered the various types of wrapping. That plus the manipulation of tiny objects problem is probably the nub.

ISTR the pants guy got his items all aligned already (i.e. came out of some deterministic automated process) but then IAlsoSTR them dropping down a chute at random. In any case, it's probably a last-mile type problem. The leg parts were almost automated (he stuck the pants onto a huge vacuum cleaner that sucked them inside out). It was the "torso" of the pants that he had to do manually. That guy is probably only there to straighten out unpredictable kinks.

All of these jobs are great motivators for kids: "Study hard or you'll be inside-out pants guy!"
posted by DU at 10:06 AM on July 26, 2010

The music bed for Fred's Picture-Picture piece is effing magical. The use of the drums for the industrial sounds is rather inspired. Fred Rogers did all the piano work on his show and was in fact a pretty good jazz/improvisational pianist, something that has from time to time inspired me in my own practice.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 10:27 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

That plus the manipulation of tiny objects problem is probably the nub.

You'd think some kind of beam-reflector device plus a little suction hose could do it. Funnel all the kisses down a series of however many little one-kiss-at-a-time raceways you need to maintain overall throughput. When they pass a certain spot a laser or regular light beam gets shot at them. If the light is reflected to a minimum degree (because all the wrapping colors are still reflective foil) the kiss passes, if not (because an unwrapped kiss is brown dull chocolate) then the little vacuum sitting just past the light beam is activated and slurps up the mis-wrapped kiss, to be deposited in the oops bin. No clever little robot hands or eyes needed, really.
posted by rusty at 10:39 AM on July 26, 2010

@Ogre Lawless --Fred Rogers did all the piano work on his show and was in fact a pretty good jazz/iFmprovisational pianist

This is, in fact, totally incorrect. Fred Rogers wrote most of the show's songs, but the pianist was the great Johnny Costa, a superb musician and a techical wizard of jazz piano.
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 12:25 PM on July 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

All of these jobs are great motivators for kids: "Study hard or you'll be inside-out pants guy!"

Heh. I always used the How-it's Made show with the poor worker who --all day long-- picks up chicken carcasses and impales their gaping, post-disembowelment, chicken-y asses onto an endless belt of trumpet stands so more skilled guys can carve them farther up the line. Impaling headless chicken corpses, one every 1.3 seconds or something all day long, every day. That was my threat. "You'll end up being the Vlad of poultry."

The new Hershey Tour is so bad. The old Hershey tour was so good.
posted by umberto at 1:07 PM on July 26, 2010

rusty, my amateur guess for machinery to eliminate unwrapped Kisses would be an air gate. I saw one in action on the potato chip line at a Frito-Lay factory in Illinois. The potato chips come flying down a conveyor, and pass under the gate, which has an electric eye programmed to look for dark chips. If one is detected, the gate sends a tiny blast of air down at precisely the right moment, knocking the bad chip into a bin below the line. The Frito-Lay factory tour I went on, during which we got to eat hot-off-the-line Lay's (yum) and Funyuns (yuck) was one stop on a two-week tour of manufacturers, retailers, and related businesses I went on when I was a Food Marketing major at Western Michigan University.

The tour also included visits to a Kellogg's plant (highlight: watching a six-foot wide swatch of Mini-Wheats be laid down), the enormous Nabisco bakery in Illinois (highlights: the five-foot diameter tank above the Oreo line reading simply "ICING" and learning that Fig Newtons are cut by high-pressure water jets), an Anheuser-Busch plant (highlights: obvious) and a Hormel plant that put everybody but me (vegetarian already) off of pepperoni for weeks. The saddest part of the tour was a visit to the Michelina's Frozen Foods factory in the little town of Jackson, Ohio, where as we walked the floor, the workers (unlike every other plant we'd been to) wouldn't meet our eyes and looked completely demoralized. Then we got into the conference room at the end of the tour, and the owner proceeded to use our time alone with him to rail against the shiftlessness and laziness of his workers, whom he said would work for a few weeks or months until they got just enough money to live on for a while, would then quit and come back asking for work again weeks or months later. Their motivation was obvious.

I was interning at Kellogg's at the time I went on the tour, and I knew that the factory tour we went on there (like most of them) was almost impossible to score. Kellogg's had an ersatz factory too, by the way, called Cereal City USA, which opened in 1998 and closed in 2007. IIRC, the public tours of the actual Kellogg's production plant stopped in 1986. They were apparently stopped for competitive reasons - I was told by a colleague at Kellogg's that it was recognized that certain people took the tour over and over and were thus suspected of at least low-level corporate espionage.

Anyhow, that trip was like Unwrapped/How It's Made on steroids, for three credit hours! It was certainly one of my favorite parts of a very enjoyable major.
posted by jocelmeow at 5:33 PM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

jocelmeow: That sounds awesome, and I'm totally jealous. Except that if you went on to become a food marketer I sort of have to hate you a little bit. But it's nothing personal at all.
posted by rusty at 6:07 PM on July 26, 2010

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