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Production Engineering

August 27, 2002

A public radio commentary

My parents took my brother, sister, and I on the oddest family vacations: We visited factories. My father, a theater professor who didn't know the rudiments of science or engineering, was fascinated by them. 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 cereal lover he marveled at the huge, smelly vats at Kellogg's in Michigan. As a child I, too, marvelled at mass production.

Now, as a full grown engineer, I marvel even more. I now know how much ingenuity goes into mass producing something.

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. This is why 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 full quarter of the aluminum needed to make a can, so making this tiny bit smaller by narrowing the top saves about twenty million dollars in metal.

The second step in optimizing mass production is to save time. For in production, truly, time is money. And to me, this is where real cleverness enters. Consider 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 rubber thread? The solution: 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. In a production line they take molten plastic and blow a big bubble of smooth plastic wrap, then collapses 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, who 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 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises