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Blog posts tagged as 'manufacture'

Infinite Zoom into Milk

In 1977 Charles and Ray Eames made a documentary film called Powers of Ten. The second half of the film includes a slow zoom into a man’s hand, right the way through cells and molecules all the way down to an atomic structure. It’s extraordinarily engaging, beginning at a familiar human context, and visualising something desperately distant and unknowable.

About a year ago James King brought a book to my attention from a series called Analysis of the Massproduct Design by Japanese product designer Taku Sato.

Analysis of the Massproduct Design is just like the Eames Powers of Ten video but for everyday products.

Taku Sato book covers

Each book takes a manufactured product and breaks down the content, graphics, construction and packaging page by page. The books are like infinite zooms into fabrication and history.

There are four, in turn looking at Xylitol Lime Mint chewing gum, a Fujifilm disposable camera, ‘Licca the fashion dress up doll by Takara Co.’ and a litre of milk from the Meiji Dairies Corporation. The blurb reads:

…we will take up and focus on one mass-produced product seen everywhere in our daily life without special attention paid to and from the point of view of design we try to take a closer look at and analytically examine it to find what kinds of ideas, efforts, ingenuities have been put in to it.

Each book begins with an overview and in some cases a history. This is from the book on the Fujifilm disposable camera.

Fujifilm overview

As the book progresses, spreads examine the product in greater and greater detail. Near the end of the Fujifilm book, there’s a photographic one micrometer cross section of the film stock.

fujifilm book film detail

One of my favourites spreads is from the book examining Xylitol chewing gum and is titled ‘The Feeling on the Teeth When Chewed.’ It’s about the material qualities of tablets versus sticks of gum. A quote:

The firmness of a chewing gum changes gradually with the passing of the time of its being chewed. In order to make this change of the chewing feeling close to an ideal one, the elements that should make up of the chewing gum are controlled… The figure shows the strength of the chewing exerted in the mouth measured with an analyzing device called RheoMeter. These graphs will tell you how different the chewing feelings are between ordinary sheet-type chewing gum and sugar coated chewing gum.

An ideal chewing feeling! A RheoMeter! They’ve got a machine for testing the chewiness of gum.

chewiness spread

I think Taku Sato actually designed the packaging for the milk carton he analyses. One of the spreads shows what each of the indents on the base of the cartons are for. Ambiguity in the translation adds to the mystery in some cases:

…(image a) is a little dented. This is for securing the stability of the carton when placed straight on a table… The number (image c) is the filling machine’s column index. The embossed information works for cause of the trouble to be clarified when it happens.

Taku Sato milk base

The books feel like imaginary manuals. They offer the seductive illusion that with this book the object can be completely known, all secrets unravelled. They somehow imply that if all was lost, objects like these could be reconstructed with this knowledge alone.

A while back I came across the term ‘Spime’ in Bruce Sterling‘s book Shaping Things. He uses the word to characterise smart objects which talk about their histories, how they were made, where they were sourced, where they’ve been, etc. Spimes might be a cars which announce their locations, or a packaged beef steak which shows the cow it comes from and where that cow was raised.

Sato’s books are raw Spime porn. Objects showing off their shiny interiors, construction and their ancestors. The celebrity biographies of mass produced objects.

Japanese repair culture and distributed manufacture

I’ve just finished Cities by John Reader, on the history of cities, and it’s chock full of information and great stories.

Cities, John Reader

This story, on Japanese manufacture, is lengthy but so good I have to quote it in full:

Bicycles were extremely popular in Japanese cities at the end of the nineteenth century, when the import of goods that Japanese manufactures could not compete with on price — or could not make at all — was damaging the national economy. Clearly, if bicycles could be made in Japan, both the massive demand for an individual means of transport and the national economy would be server at the same time. As Jane Jacobs points out in her book The Economy of Cities, Japan could have responded to this challenge by inviting foreign manufacturers to establish plants in the country — though this would have brought little profit to the Japanese themselves. Or they could have built a factory of their own — which would have required large investments in specialised machinery and the training of a skilled labour force. The Japanese followed neither of these options. Instead they exploited an indigenous talent for ‘economic borrowing’ — or imitation, as non-specialists would call it. It worked like this:

Not long after the importation of bicycles had begun, large numbers of one- and two-man repair shops sprang up in the cities. Since imported spare parts were expensive and broken bicycles too valuable to cannabalise, many repair shops found it worthwhile to make replacement parts themselves — not difficult if each of the shops specialised in making only one or two specific parts, as many did. In this way, groups of bicycle repair shops were in effect manufacturing entire bicycles before long, and it required only an enterprising individual to begin buying parts on contract from the repairmen for Japan to have the beginnings of a home-grown bicycle manufacturing industry.

So, far from being costly to develop, bicycle manufacturing in Japan paid for itself at every stage of its development. And the Japanese got much more than a bicycle industry from the exercise. They had also acquired a model for many of their other industrial achievements: imitation and a system of reducing complex manufacturing work to a number of relatively simple operations which could be done in small autonomous workshops. The pattern was applied to the production of many other goods, and underwrote the soaring economic success of Japan during the twentieth century. Sony began life at the end of the Second World War as a small shop making tubes on contract for radio assemblers. The first Nikon cameras were exact copies of the Zeiss Contax; Canon copied the Leica; Toyota Landcruisers were powered by copies of the Chrysler straight-six engine.

Here are the reasons this is great:

  • It’s distributed manufacture, a network of independent units operating as a single factory, but in a more agile way.
  • It reminds us that the idea of interchangeable parts is relatively new–and was a world-changer. It parallelised and distributed manufacture. Are we at the level of interchangeable parts in software yet? Despite common protocols like HTTP, I don’t think so, not quite.
  • It points to an alternative to the mass manufacture and assembly line of Fordism. The parts can be accessed separately from the assembly, we can build our own neighbourhood factories for custom goods! Mass manufacture doesn’t imply treating workers like interchangeable parts too! What’s more, it bootstraps off mass manufacture and makes something different out of it.

The most exciting reason?

This pattern is happening, right now, in India with mobile phones. 100s of small shops repair and rebuild phones with generic components and reverse-engineered schematics, supported by a developed training and tool-production infrastructure.

How long before we’re seeing cheap-as-chips kit phones, assembled by entrepreneurs harvesting the market stands of Delhi?

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