Is anything commercially made really top secret?

In this thread about cymbals, something was mentioned about manufacturing techniques being top secret. With today’s science being all that it is, can it really be possible for companies to produce something and people have no idea how it’s made? For example, couldn’t a metal alloy be analyzed to see what metals are inside it, and how they are structured? From there it seems like it would just be some trial and error until you’ve figured it out. Same with Coca-cola, Pepsi, McDonald’s food, etc… Maybe I’m oversimplifying the entire reverse-engineering field, but can it really be that hard?

This is misusing the term “top secret.” The term “top secret” only applies to information protected by a government, the sort of things that they would want to prosecute someone for if they reveal that information. The term you want is “proprietary.” Proprietary information is the sort that a company keeps to itself because they don’t want another company to know how they do something.

While it is certainly possible to analyze a product like Zidjian cymbals or Classic Coke and determine the exact composition of that product, the analysis will not reveal the precise processes that were performed on those ingredients to achieve the finished result.

For example, chocolate chip cookies are fairly simple to make, but if you started from scratch with nothing other than the complete chemical analysis of the finished product and the knowledge that it was heated somehow, it would still take a lot of trial and error to produce an edible cookie. It would take much more effort to turn out a really good chocolate chip cookie.

In the case of cymbals, you have it exactly right. Trial and error all the time. Different lines of cymbals have different mixtures, and at least some of the bad stuff can be reduced back down. Even a mixture that performs poorly can still be sold, although probably not under the company brand name.

How something is made, and what it is composed of are different things. Whilst the final artifact is clearly available for analysis, and maybe some level of reverse engineering, the manner in which it is manufactured, and especially, manufactured economically, may be very much a trade secret.

It’s not the composition of the final product that matters as much as the steps taken to achieve it. You can’t tell from a list of chemicals whether they were heated at 520° for 45 minutes or 460° for 62 minutes or whether this should be in Celsius or Fahrenheit. You can’t tell whether 100 pounds of pressure was used with a heavy roller or whether a shockwave produced 1000 pounds of pressure for an instant. You can’t tell whether the mixture needs to be cooled steadily for 24 hours or plunged into a cold bath. You can’t tell whether the magnesium needs to be added after the chromium or before it. You can’t tell whether spinning the material in a centrifuge produces better results than mixing it in a drum or pouring it in a thin sheet or squirting it at itself from small high speed sprays.

A manufacturing process may have dozens of steps, each one with enormous degrees of variation, each plausible in and of itself but implausible when mixed with any or all of the others. Unless you know the process, the materials, the conditions, the surroundings, and the tiny details of hard-learned expertise there’s no reason to think that you could ever perfectly duplicate a secret manufacturing technique. Adequately, certainly. But perfectly? Impossible. Even in this day and age of 2010, which is the future.

Ditto Francis and Exapno.

There is a bewildering variety of detail in what goes on in some factories, and often the most advanced practicioners feel that they are only scratching the surface, only getting started.

Moreover, this all has an economic basis. It’s not at all clear that reverse engineering something is a better investment than starting out on something new.

A good example of the difficulty in reverse engineering is replicating Stradivarius violins. Hundreds of master luthiers have tried to replicate the sound. They’ve analyzed with x-rays and laser vibrometer. They still haven’t figured it out.

Wow, I always thought that the the chemical make-up of something would make it a little more obvious, like a bunch of scientists would be sitting around saying “see that crystalline structure there, this was definitely spun in a centrifuge before being pressed for a long time.” But apparently not! Dope = 1, Ignorance = Fought.

This was another thing I was thinking about when starting this thread. This guy is probably laughing away in his grave knowing that his 300 year old instruments still have us beat.

That may be because the sound of a Stradivarius is in the mind, not in the instrument. As Wikipedia points out, blind tests consistently fail to distinguish Stradivari violins from similarly constructed, high-quality violins by other luthiers in other times.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stradivarius#Controversy_over_sound_quality

I had a client that made castings out of a relatively standard magnesium/aluminum compound. No secret about the ingredients or the process, but the specs on “cook” time and temperature were extremely tight – any variation and the finished product would be too brittle or too malleable.

It wouldn’t be too difficult for someone to figure out the proper temperature and time – eventually – but it would be strictly trial and error.

In your client’s case, do you have any idea how he came about the cook time for his process? Did he figure it out just by trial and error, or did he have some sort of math equation or another idea that led him to the right time?

I do wonder about inferior store brands though. Is it really that hard to make a corn chip that tastes like a Dorito?

How do you know they are trying to duplicate the distinctive (and IMO bad) taste of Doritos®?

They probably don’t want to make it taste too similar, for fear of being sued. IOW, their goal is to produce a corn chip which is tasty enough and cheap enough that lots of people will buy it over Doritos or other brands. And that’s about as far as they go.

As to whether they were working from a mathematical model that would yield exactly X characteristic at Y temperature for Z amount of time, I don’t really know.

Not being an engineer or a metallurgist, I couldn’t follow exactly what the technique was. As near as I could figure it, the alloy had a known elasticity range of A to B, within a given temperature range of about 5 degrees. (As I said, it was a standard industry compound.) So, they weren’t starting completely from scratch, it was more a process of nailing down the temperature more precisely than the 5 degree standard and ensuring that the entire batch was maintained consistently at that temperature all the way into the pour. They were very proud that they could maintain the temperature within a couple of 1/10 degrees at all times.

Not only would it be difficult to determine the process, but even determining the exact chemical composition of a given item can be incredibly difficult. My dad has worked as an analytical chemist for a number of years and I’ve picked up a few things.
#1: For any given chemical formula (for soda, for instance), other chemicals can be added to the mix that won’t change the end result but will muddle the reverse-engineering process to the point where only a very few people on the planet understand the process well enough to separate the “real” ingredients from the others.
#2: Even if the chemical formula hasn’t been muddled with, determining the exact chemical composition is completely different than figuring out what the “source” ingredients were and how to reproduce them. It’s a little more complex than throwing a drop of Coke Zero into a Mass Spectrometer and seeing what comes out the other end.

Frankly, I don’t know what there is that they could sue over. Just because it tastes similar? The taste is not protected by any law that I know of.

But your second point is the basic one, and the reason for store-brand & generic products – cheaper. Part of the reason it’s cheaper is that the store brand & generic products are not spending vast amounts on advertising, part of the reason is that they are internal to the store so distribution expenses are lower, and part of the reason may be that they use cheaper ingredients or a cheaper manufacturing process.

I’m not sure this is directly applicable to what the OP is asking but…

I work in the semiconductor industry and there is a lot that is proprietary. Specifically I work for a ‘fabless semiconductor’ company so we are just talking about the internal logic design of IC’s ; not anything related to the manufacturing process.

Users have to jump through hoops just to get access to documentation on how to use our devices, and never get all the info on the internal implementation.

This is usually described as “proprietary information” and/or “intellectual property.”

I’m a consumer of steel. Everyone knows the chemical composition and properties of (for example), DP780 steel, but every steel supplier has propriety manufacturing methods. Some methods are probably cheaper than others, meaning there’s a competitive advantage to that company. So even in cases where there’s no need to reverse engineer, there’s a definite need to protect how the product is made.

As a user of the steel, we don’t have anything top secret. On the other hand, we publish a lot of manufacturing patents, or barring that publish a lot of defensive articles (so no one else can patent). All the same, we don’t (often) invite in competitors to see what we do. Not that it means a lot since we’ve sold off a lot of the business to competitors. (Rick, how do you feel about the new Chinese soon-to-be owners?)