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The High-Tech Razor (Public Radio Commentary)

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

So far, the biggest business story of 2005 is Procter & Gamble's 57 billion dollar acquisition of Gillete. What in the world are they getting for that amount? Well, from an engineers viewpoint, if you'll pardon the pun, they're getting the cutting edge in razor technology.

The Edge razor developed by Gillette about ten years ago is a technological marvel that cost three-quarters of a billion dollars to develop. Here's the story.

For a long time razors used only two blades, but manufacturers 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.

started with an engineer building a special microscope to magnify freshly shaved chins forty times - a microscope outfitted with a laser for measuring the amount of hair cut by each razor stroke. Using this info Gillette engineers wrote a computer program to model shaving, which let them test out new razor designs.

They learned how a razor works: As it strokes the chin 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.

In a two bladed razor, the second blade catches the hair before it can retract fully, and cuts it again. Using their computer the engineers could see that a third blade would cut about 40% more hair - but that this extra blade would get too close and tear the skin slightly.

They discovered that by tipping the third blade at an angle to the other two blades it would cut the hair, but not tear the skin. This in turn presented a problem: How to pack all three blades into a compact razor.

They tried making the blades thinner, but they become too fragile, to the point where a hair would actually break or blunt the edge. So, they used a high-tech diamond coating for the blades, making them stronger than steel and able to cut hair better than anything else in the world.

To coat the blades they created a special factory with an environment cleaner than any surgery ward.

This cost about three quarters of billion dollars - all that to make a simple razor that you buy for just a few dollars. Its quite a technological feat. Small wonder, the great investor Warren Buffett - and a major holder of Gillette stock - called Proctor & Gamble's acquisition "a dream deal" that'll create the "greatest consumer-products company in the world."

Copyright 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises