“In the borehole pressure mines 100km beneath Planetsurface, at the Mohorovicic Discontinuity where crust gives way to mantle, temperatures often reach levels well in excess of 1000 degrees Celsius. Exploitation of Planet’s resources under such brutal conditions has required quantum advances in robotic and teleoperational technology.”
— Morgan Industries, Ltd., “Annual Report”
Industrial Automation is a third-tier economic technology, requiring Planetary Networks and Industrial Economics to research. And it is, in many ways, the key technology on the tree. In competitive games with directed research, players will often beeline directly to this technology in order to ensure that they reach it even a year before their rivals, as the gains from it quickly compound.
Why is this? It unlocks a lot of extremely useful things: the Hab Complex base facility (which raises the population cap of a base from seven to fourteen); the Planetary Transit Network secret project; and the Wealth social engineering choice. Each one of these things on their own would make this technology better than average. Taken all together, the tech is already top-tier.
And the sum of these benefits is perhaps less than half of the total, because of the final benefit: this technology enables the Supply Crawler unit type. Crawlers are fairly expensive units that have a few really great properties.
Before we go on to talk about the wondrous impact of these supply crawlers on the economy, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the Wealth social engineering option that this technology unlocks. Wealth is generally the first option unlocked in the “Values” column, which means that it isn’t meant to represent a formal political or economic structure. Instead, the three values are supposed to represent something more like philosophical or religious orientations as implemented throughout society. They’re rough guidelines for the answer to the age-old question “what is best in life?”
The early colonies are operating too close to the edge to be able to differentiate along the lines of abstract values as opposed to those which are instantiated in more immediately practical forms of social organization. So by getting the choice to focus on Wealth as a societal value, this reflects the maturity of the faction’s economy and society, enabled largely through increased automation of routine tasks all throughout the economy.
A focus on Wealth, in the game, gives the faction that adopts it a bonus to industry and economy at a significant cost to unit morale. These bonuses are really good and the costs are rarely catastrophic, so unless the military situation is quite dire, a faction would usually prefer to be running Wealth than nothing. Adopting it tends to make a faction the enemy of the Spartans, who naturally prefer Power, as well as the University with their clear preference for Knowledge.
So, back to the miraculous Supply Crawlers. Why are they so amazing? There are three reasons for that. The first is that they can be used to harvest a single type of yield from a tile. When used in this way, the resulting resources get shuttled back to the home base for that crawler and the tile is not eligible to be worked by any base. This isn’t so great if they are harvesting from forests, which tend to have balanced yields like 1-2-1. But if, instead, they are used to work mines, condensers, or echelon mirrors that tend to have very lopsided yields, they can be just as good as human workers.
This separation of tile yields from nutrients breaks the game wide open. Each crawler is pretty costly, so it takes a while for a faction to build up the critical mass of crawlers necessary to make each additional crawler cheap. Also, since unlike workers, crawlers are units that are physically on the map, they are militarily vulnerable. Mind worms and enemy units can easily destroy them unless they are armored, which (like with armored terraformers) greatly increases their mineral cost. Finally, crawlers are still subject to the resource limits until the appropriate technologies have been researched.
Second, they can be used to convoy resources from one base to another. Since you can only move one nutrient/mineral/energy from one base to another, this has limited utility. But it has its place. In particular, since units above a base’s support limit require minerals from that base to stay in the field, it is possible to use crawlers to transfer minerals to a particular base. This allows a faction that’s running Free Market to base all of its attacking units out of one home base that can handle the additional drones.
Finally, crawlers can be used like alien artifacts to rush Secret Projects or prototype units. When this is done, the crawler is consumed and the full mineral cost of the crawler is applied to the project. This is a pretty big deal for a couple of reasons. First, it lets the faction save up and concentrate several turns’ worth of production while a key technology is being researched. Then, once the enabling technology has been discovered, all the crawlers can be cashed in to immediately produce the desired item. And second, there is a penalty applied to rush-buying Secret Projects that is not applied to upgrading crawlers. So if a faction has Industrial Automation and wants to spend energy to build a Secret Project, it’s much better to upgrade crawlers (with add-ons like more armor or specials) and then cash in the upgraded crawlers at their new higher price to rush the project.
These benefits are so amazing that they are derided by people who are primarily concerned with balance in their strategy games. And that’s a fair criticism. In a lot of ways, SMAC is not an amazingly balanced game. Instead, it seeks to be “balanced enough” while always attempting to give the player the sense that the game is actually modeling a fictional future on an alien world. It constantly seeks to reinforce this sense of verisimilitude. Since the dry technical capabilities that are described in the quote would logically have a rapid and vast effect on the lives of the colonists, the associated technology therefore delivers an amazing array of benefits.