2022-10-17 8 min read


Notes, 2022-10-17.

My uncle, a former surgical technician, recently gave me a Cooley-Baumgarten wire twister. It is a specialized set of forceps used to hold wires, needles, and pins during orthopedic surgery. He told me simply, “You’ll find this useful.” I wasn’t at all convinced because (gasp) I’m not a surgeon, but I humored him by admiring its German craftsmanship, then threw it in my toolbox to be forgotten.

A few days later, I noticed that the drain in my kids’ bathtub was holding water (again). Drano didn’t work so I was at a loss until I remembered the wire twister. I used it to reach into the dark depths and pull out a massive clump of mermaid doll hair. Despite myself, I keep finding uses for this thing. Most recently, I was cleaning the car for a road trip and noticed a piece of candy stuck in a crevice beneath one of the seats. The vacuum didn’t have enough suction to pull it out, but the wire twisters did the job.

Though optimized for a specific use case, some tools lend themselves to many others. We’ve been brainstorming additions to the tool guide in the Members’ Slack this week, and many of the favorites have similar versatility. This property increases a tool’s value, partly because of the added utility, and partly because there is a small creative joy in figuring out a new use for something you already own.

-James Coleman

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~6% of opens) was an article on Nowa Huta, the infamous steel factory & surrounding settlements that came to embody socialist realist ideology. In the Members' Slack, we've been discussing how to document products that mix both software and hardware, and also how to navigate the valley of despair that can take over the middle part of a project. Join us :)

Planning & Strategy.

  • The Institute for Supply Management regularly surveys purchasing managers at 300 manufacturing firms to produce the ISM manufacturing index. It is considered a key indicator of how the US economy is doing. The basic idea is that purchasing managers, as gatekeepers of supply chains, have a special view of their firm’s growth prospects. If they buy (or plan to buy) more stuff, it indicates that the firm is preparing for expansion. If they buy less, contractions might be imminent. Scores above 50 indicate an expansion relative to the previous month, while scores below 50 indicate a contraction.

    The ISM index has been above 50 since 2020-06, peaking at 64.7 in 2021-03. Some attribute this growth to a shift in Americans’ buying habits from services to products during the pandemic. As a result, hiring in US manufacturing is strong. While the sector lost 1.36 million jobs during the pandemic low, it has added back 1.43 million jobs, a net gain. However, the index’s rate of growth has slowed considerably in recent months, leading some to worry about the larger economy and a potential recession. It is also possible that this merely reflects a shift back toward spending on services.
  • The shift to renewable energy sources like solar is a critical part of the battle against rising global temperatures. One of the most daunting aspects of this is changing human behavior. Seemingly trivial issues, like the way rooftop solar panels affect curb appeal, can have a huge impact on individual decision making. A surprising parallel can be found with coal adoption – when it was introduced in the early 19th century, Americans were similarly resistant.

    At the time, most homes used wood fireplaces for their heating and cooking needs. Deforestation slowly increased the price of firewood, so an obvious alternative was the seemingly unlimited coal reserves in the ground. But it was difficult to get people to switch. Just like solar installation today, people had to buy a new and expensive piece of technology – the coal-powered stove. Many Americans didn’t like the look of these stoves because you couldn’t see the flames as you could in a fireplace. Some even argued that introducing the new technology might have huge social costs as families could no longer gather around the fire. A combination of aggressive advertising from mining interests and government support (stove loan programs for the poor, bulk off-season buying) allowed coal to eventually prevail. There are some real lessons here as we transition to climate-friendly technologies like solar and heat pumps.

Making & Manufacturing.

  • I was mesmerized by this video of the massive umbrellas in Saudi Arabia’s Medina Haram Piazza. They were designed by German engineering firm SL Rasch to protect pilgrims who gather to pray at the adjacent Holy Mosque of the Prophet. The 250 shades cover a 150,000-square-meter area, overlapping slightly to ensure seamless coverage for up to 250,000 people.

    Aside from being incredibly beautiful, the umbrellas are a marvel of engineering and materials science. Each has a novel folding arm system with 6 hinges, which are clad with a special composite and decorated with mosaic tiles. To ensure UV protection in the harsh desert sun, the coverings are made from highly durable PTFE. Each umbrella also has a set of evaporative cooling fans. This video shows some of the manufacturing and installation processes.
  • While reading Stuff Matters in The Prepared’s weekly reading group, I learned how self-healing concrete works and it blew my mind. Over time, cracks can form in reinforced concrete structures, allowing in water. The moisture can ultimately rust away steel reinforcements, as was the case with the Surfside condominium collapse in Miami.

    Self-healing concrete combats cracking with embedded bacteria that can survive in highly alkaline environments like concrete. Dormant Bacillus pasteurri are mixed in, along with a form of starch for food. When the concrete cracks and water inevitably flows in, the bacteria animate, eat the starch, and secrete calcite, which bonds with the concrete and "heals" the crack. Research has shown that this process restores 90% of the concrete’s strength. This brief video explains the process well.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

  • This broad ranging thought piece describes the philosophy of maintenance and how it might play a role in solving large societal problems like climate change and resource scarcity. It begins by highlighting a worrying reality, namely that “The industrial world is aging, and the sheer quantity and geographic extent of transportation, water and energy infrastructure presents an unprecedented challenge at the exact moment that climate change forces us to rethink material use.”

    Simply replacing all this infrastructure would tax our remaining natural resources and exacerbate the climate problem (think of the concrete!). Maintenance is a technical process that requires a deep understanding of the thing being maintained. Maintainers are uniquely positioned to decide what industrial infrastructure is worth repairing and keeping, and what should be replaced to take advantage of new technology or design approaches. “The work of maintenance is ultimately a way of parsing and knowing a thing and deciding, over and over, what it’s worth.”
  • The New York City Department of Sanitation collects 12,000 tons of garbage with 7,200 uniformed workers each day. These workers, who must also pass a civil service exam, complete a month-long training program at the Ronald F. DiCarlo Training Academy in Brooklyn. Trash school is intense. They, of course, learn to safely navigate the “white elephant” garbage truck through busy NYC streets and how to safely empty city issued trash cans (which are 13.6 kg when empty). More challenging is learning how to avoid the “juice” that trash ejects when being compacted or “disco rice” (a creative term for maggots). Safety is absolutely critical as OSHA lists trash pickup as one of the occupations with the highest number of fatalities.

    Why go through this? It turns out that people can make a decent living. The starting pay is just over 40K, but this more than doubles after about 5 years on the job. There is also a pension and ample opportunity for things like overtime. Compared to NYC’s private trash hauling, it’s a particularly appealing gig.

Distribution & Logistics.

  • MrBeast is a 24-year-old YouTube sensation who has amassed over 100 million subscribers. He is most well known for giving away large sums of money in challenges and stunts, but I got interested when he opened 300 fast food burger restaurants in a single day.

    It turns out that they are actually “ghost franchises” that operate exclusively through delivery apps. In exchange for a cut of the sale (45%), MrBeast provides the branding, menu, and recipes to any commercial kitchen with excess capacity. Ghost franchises are now big business, powered by VC-backed startups like Virtual Dining Concepts. The kitchens don’t even need to retool. If you run a Mexican restaurant, for example, you can become a ghost franchise for Mario’s Tortas Lopez, a quick service concept from actor Mario Lopez. It seems like a win for small local restaurants, but are customers really “buying local” by supporting a national brand?
  • A guide for reading the circular box maker’s certificate (BMC) on many corrugated boxes. Also, a very enthusiastic video overview.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.

I live just outside Atlanta, where Coca-Cola is headquartered, so it’s the only carbonated beverage I can publicly acknowledge drinking. But this week I learned that Georgia is also the birthplace of Royal Crown Cola, giving me another local option. “RC Cola”, as it is popularly known, was once a significant rival to Coke. They were the first company to distribute soda in cans, in 1954, and one of the first to manufacture diet soda.

Their Diet Rite beverage was a market leader until its key sweetener, cyclamate, was banned by the FDA in 1969. While several studies at the time linked it to cancer in animal testing, the ban was likely enacted because of intense lobbying by the sugar industry, which viewed the artificial sweetener as a threat. Recent studies have cast doubt on cyclamate’s harmful effects, and today it is a legal food additive in 130 countries (including Canada and the EU, though not the US).

While learning about the carbonated beverage industry, I fell down a rabbit hole on the engineering of aluminum cans. Some 500 billion are manufactured each year. This video is a fantastic primer on how they are formed, starting from a single aluminum blank.

The number of ingenious engineering decisions in a single can is staggering. The domed bottom, for example, saves material while also allowing the can to absorb more pressure. An epoxy lacquer separates the beverage from the aluminum, preventing corrosion and a nasty metal taste. The tapered neck, which I thought was a nice aesthetic touch, saves 90 million kilograms of aluminum per year. It’s a small reminder how miraculous some of our most mundane inventions are.


  • In Disney’s Big Hero 6, a McMaster-Carr catalog appears as an easter egg in one of the final scenes. Another one appears on the shelf behind Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher (along with a Grainger catalog). It seems that movie makers love their industrial supplies.
  • I was curious why Purdue University athletic teams are referred to as “Boilermakers,” which is the only sporting nom de guerre I know related to manufacturing. Boilermakers fabricate large metal containers that hold hot liquid and gas – a profession that certainly builds muscle mass. After Purdue’s football team destroyed a local rival 44-0 in 1891, the vanquished opponents accused them of recruiting athletes from local boiler shops. The name stuck.

Aerographene, which is a graphene-based aerogel, is the least dense material in existence. A block of it can be held aloft by the stamens of a flower.

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