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Razor (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

Every morning I stare in my bathroom mirror and use a technological marvel that cost three-quarters of a billion dollars to develop. It is, of course, my razor. I just bought a new one, and the great engineering novelty is that it has three blades, not two.

For a long time razors used only two blades, but manufacturers have quested for the holy grail of a three bladed razor because it cuts more hair, yet doesn't irritate the skin. Sounds simple, but it really is very high tech engineering. Here are the steps to develop this razor.

Step one: Understand shaving. First an engineer developed a high-powered microscope to magnify freshly shaved chins forty times. Peering through this microscope the engineer used a laser-guided device to measure how much each hair was cut by a razor stroke.

Step two: This engineer passed this info to a colleague who wrote down a set of equations - called finite elements - to model shaving in a computer. This computer model lets other engineers study shaving before designing a new razor. From this work they learned how a razor works: As a razor moves it makes the skin bulge, forcing hairs up and out. The blade catches a hair, pulls it up, and slices through it, after which the hair starts to retract. And, in a two bladed razor, the second blade catches the hair before it can retract fully, and cuts it again. Now from this basic understanding the engineers could see that a third blade would cut the hair even shorter - cut 40% more hair - but they learned from their computer that this third blade would get too close and tear the skin slightly. But since this three bladed razor was the holy grail of razors the engineers played with their computer to make a third blade work.

They learned that tipping the third blade at an angle to the other two blades will cut the hair, but not significantly tear the skin. This is progress, but along comes step three because a problem arises: How to pack all three blades into a compact razor. They try making the blades thinner, but they become too fragile, to the point where a hair will actually break or blunt the edge. So another engineer enters. This time a metallurgical engineer - a specialist in metal - who realized you could cover the steel blade with a thin layer of something super hard and make the metal blade stronger.

That something super hard is a thin layer of carbon that makes a diamond like coating on the blade. Well, now we have a razor with three blades that are stronger than steel and cut hair better than anything else in the world. What's the next step?

Make a razor that appeals to consumers. The marketing team decided to give this razor a neat finish: They asked the engineers to watch Arnold Scharzenegger's movie Terminator 2 and match the finish on the razor's handle to the movies' liquid-metal villain, giving it an almost mercury like finish.

Then the last step, step five: Get a group of engineers to make a world class factory to produce the razor. The heart of this factory is a Class 5000 clean room with an environment more pure than any surgery ward. Here white coated workers carefully coat the steel blades with the hard carbon film. All this - three quarters of billion dollars worth of stuff - to make a simple razor, that you can buy for just a few dollars.

Copyright 1999 William S. Hammack Enterprises