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Mass production (Public Radio Commentary)

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

My parents took my brother, sister, and I on the oddest family vacations: We visited factories across North American. My parents prized these tours, especially my father, which was odd because my mother was the scientist, not him.

He was a theater professor who didn't even know the rudiments of science. Yet factories fascinated him: He stood spellbound as a Canadian factory made wood boards at a tremendous rate, or a plant in California filled jillions of cans of corn a minute. And because he was a ceral lover he marveled at the huge, smelly vats at Kellogg's in Michigan.

I learned how much my father valued these tours when we stopped in Detroit and he tried to arrange a tour of an auto maker. I remember him walking back to the car, his body telegraphing his disappointment: You had to be eighteen to have a tour, and my siblings and I were no where near that age. As a child I, too, marvelled at mass production. Now, as a full grown engineer, I marvel even more because I now know how much clever engineering goes into mass producing something. The main thing is to save material and time. An engineer must be obsessive in shaving every ounce from a product. Think of a metal soda can: Three hundred millions cans are made every day. If you use just a tiny bit of extra metal on each can that tiny bit turns into a lot when multiplied by three hundred million cans a day. This is the reason a soda can narrows near the top - the slight curve at the neck of the can. This "necking" isn't for aesthetics; it's to save money. The top uses a quarter of the aluminum needed to make a can; by narrowing the can's neck the top is made smaller. For every four hundredth of an ounce shaved off the top, the can maker saves twenty million dollars in metal.

So, the first step in mass producing something is to shave weight, and the second is to save time. In production time is money. And this is where real cleverness enters. Take a golf ball. Its center is a liquid encased in a mass of rubber thread - this is what gives the ball its bounce. Now picture yourself as an engineer who's been asked to make this golf ball. How would you quickly wrap a ball of liquid with tons of rubber thread? Bear in mind that moving liquid around is tricky. Think of carrying a cup of coffee upstairs, often you spill it, unlike something solid like a donut, which is easy to carry. How then do you make a golf ball quickly? You freeze the liquid center - making it solid - and quickly wrap it in rubber thread.

Also very clever is the production of plastic wrap - the stuff you cover food with. I'm sure you've been frustrated trying to get it off the roll; it sticks to everything. How, then, in a mass production line, do they make this stuff? They take molten plastic and blow a big bubble of smooth plastic wrap, then collapse this bubble to create a single sheet of wrap. The main problem they have is with flies crashing into the wrap and wrecking the bubble before they want it to collapse.

How do I know all this about plastic wrap? One day, long after our family vacations to factories had ceased, I visited my father. He now lived alone. He looked at me and said "Would you like to visit a factory?" He had a wistful look so I said yes. And we trotted off to a nearby chemical factory and sat, father and son, for a quiet hour or two watching plastic wrap being made.

Copyright 2000 William S. Hammack Enterprises