The "How It's Made" episode I want to see...

On those How It’s Made shows, and shows of the same genre, you see an amazing array of stuff being made on all these fancy machines. It is amazing how some of the machines work – and work at blazing speed. The other day, I saw a machine that puts the white frosting on the tops of chocolate cupcakes. Totally cool.

What I want to know is, who makes the machines that make stuff? Suppose I have come up with an improved design for widgets. We’ll call it superwidget. I need to make millions of superwidgets to sell at WalMart stores around the world. Who do I call to get an industrial-strength superwidget making machine? I know of another guy who is going to make a widget similar to my superwidget. I need to get my superwidget to market quicker and cheaper than my competitor. Who am I gonna call?

A “manufacturing engineer”. They’ll help you tool up a production line.

One of my fathers used to be that guy. He worked for a division of Johnson & Johnson, designing not only the assembly lines and machines to make stuff, but also machines to make those machines (it’s turtles all the way down!).

His official title was “Research Fellow”. As a kid, I always thought it hysterical that even his (very few) female colleagues were known as Research Fellows. There were some Research Fellows, like my grandfather (not my father’s father, but my mother’s father) who stood around in a lab inventing stuff, and other Research Fellows, like my father, who worked out how to make the stuff on an assembly line scale.

My dad, incidentally, doesn’t have an engineering degree, nor a graduate degree of any kind. His B.S. is in mathematics. Somehow I doubt someone would be given the opportunity to do what he did without an advanced degree today.

My grandfather used to work for a paper company as a mechanical engineer. He designed the equipment that they used to make paper products. I’m not sure how much stuff was fabricated locally vs. being contracted out to other companies.

Most assembly line tooling is necessarily one-off, isn’t it? I can’t just call up Bob’s
assembly machines and say I’d like widget maker. I would figure that part of my intellectual property is the design of my assembly line. Now a bottling machine is probably a bottling machine and can be ordered from a catalog, but is that true for other stuff?


It depends on the processes used. If your widget is made from extruded plastic, for instance, then you can indeed buy an extruder from a catalogue, the dies would need to be custom made though (and they can be expensive).

Here is a catalogue of extruding machines.

What a manufacturing engineer would do is break down the assembly of the widget into distinct processes and desing the line based on that. It’s unlikely that you would have a totally unique process although you might need some custom tooling (moulds, dies etc).

Pretty much everything can be bought off-the-shelf for assembly lines these days. Quite often, a machine designed for use in one industry will be adapted for another. I worked in a book warehouse that had automated equipment originally designed for the clothing industry, judging by the photos I’ve seen, the baggage handling equipment at Denver’s airport is based on the same setup.

Mostly, they would call an automation consulting firm, who could do the design and brokering of the awesome number of parts and machines that would make the widget maker work. My grandfather started just such a firm, and I am in the same field. It’s a fun place to be.

See parts of this other “How it’s Made” thread for some more information.

Wherever there is manufacturing going on, there will be custom machine builders. Most are mom-and-pop operations. A few are national or international corporations. For example:

Osgood Industries

I’ve mentioned in other threads that I’m a service engineer with scale, laboratory balance and industrial force measurement specialties. I have had the opportunity visit a large (hundreds) number of factories and see some of these machines in action.

It never fails to amaze me. Watching (and hearing) these things move is truly amazing.

The complexity can be hard to grasp as well. There may be scores of systems on a machine. For example, I have written scale code for a machine that fills fire extinguishers with dry powder. The scale portion of the machine checks the weight of the empty canister, gives the OK to another system which turns on a fast fill auger. This quickly fills the can to about 80% of it’s capacity. The scale stops the fast fill. It then signals for the slow fill to begin for the final 20%. The scale stops the slow fill just short of the target weight to allow the very light powder to settle. It then signals a system to blow a puff of air at the threads of the can for a better seal. After a final weigh, the scale passes the can to the next part of the machine (nozzle insertion).

As you can see, there’s a lot going on. My little slice of the machine is fairly complex and it has to talk to other complex parts of the machine. There’s compressors, optical positioning sensors, pneumatic arms and gates, conveyors, augers, hopper gates, communications to signal when powder runs low or there’s a can jam, PLCs, motor drives, the production office computer…really a million things to go wrong. Often, the people in charge of the machines have no idea of how complex they are.

On the subject of “widgets”, Gillette has a patent on this name for a single-edge-razor-bladed paint scraper that they used to make. I have one. See this blog about the term:

Ages ago there was a Saturday morning program called Hot Dog that would have kids asking, “How do they do this” or “How do they make that.” The answer very often involved industrial machinery and there was minimal – or even no – dialogue explaining anything, just the camera hanging around showing these fascinating processes in action. A question in the first program was how do they make hot dogs, and I assume that was the inspiration for the title.

Once they showed how tennis balls were made, from cutting through stacks of wool felt for the cover to molding the rubber sphere and sealing it under pressure. The final test was interesting: The conveyor belt ended at a square concrete pit about ten feet deep. The just-made balls would drop into the pit, bounce off the floor and up into a receiving slot on the other side about eight feet up, where another conveyor took it to people who would seal them in cans. Losers that didn’t make it to the slot rattled around the pit a bit, then disappear down a sump. Their fate was not shown (destined for dog toys, maybe).

I believe How It’s Made did an episode on exactly what your looking for. Though it’s one of the few episodes I’ve only seen once. Not sure about your area, but How It’s Made is on about 10 times a day here…And I can still watch the chain machine and the spring machine all day long.

BTW, not to get off topic. But is this show related to Some Assembly Required? I’ve seen the same things on both shows, so I thought it was just a coincidnce, until I started noticing that they were at the same factory. They’ve both done barrel making, they’ve both been to the same marble factory, and they’ve both done Gibson guitars.

When I was at High School in the early 80s, and computers were new and mysterious things, we went to a bunch of businesses that used computers as tools to see how they were being applied. One of those was a company that made machines that made machines (specifically the ones that made whiteware like ovens and fridges). They used CAD software.

I was fascinated, not only by the CAD, but also by the fact that I had never even considered that there are machines that make machines that make machines, and those have to be designed and built - by machines! Made my head spin.

I have nothing to add, just wanted to mention that I just had a speghetti dinner and took a tour of the clock tower a few hours ago at the place that probably made some or all of the sensors on the majority of the machines you’ve worked on. Allan-Bradley/Rockwell Automation.


And isn’t that tower awesome? Sometimes I get to bring clients there.

The most amazing machine I’ve ever seen is the “pick and place” machine used to place surface mount components onto printed circuit boards. Not only does it do it fast, but is does it with very high precision. It’s mesmerizing to watch.

I was just thinking about Hot Dog and mentioning it to a friend a few days ago. So it was in my mind when I opened this thread.

It starred Woody Allen, Jonathan Winters, and Joanne Worley, who would be asked questions like “How do they make footballs?” They would give funny answers in their own particular style, and then we’d be shown how it was really done. Like How It’s Made with a sense of humor.

I found this site on Woody Allen’s work on TV that has two clips from Hot Dog on the third page of the article. The first one in particular give you a nice sense of the tone of the show.

At my last tech writing job, I documented a lot of manufacturing equipment. The answer to your question is basically - all of the above.

I can tell you a lot about General Mills’ process because I worked closely with them on several projects. Generally, they have a team of engineers leading a project to design and install a new production line. The engineers’ job is to find the most cost-effective way to manufacture that product. They contract with other engineering firms and with OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) that specialize in different parts of the processing, packaging, conveying, and control systems.

A surprising amount of the equipment is essentially off the shelf. The equipment for bagging cereal (and chips and stuff like that) and for putting stuff in boxes is pretty well established. They just have to find the equipment that does precisely what they need and does it most efficiently. The same can probably be said for most mature product types – liquids, plastic parts, metal parts, and so on. For some new products, they might need to do some customization to make the equipment do what they want, but that’s cheaper than starting from scratch.

General Mills also has a design department and a shop where they made custom equipment. The technology they use to puff cereal, for example, is all designed and built in-house. I wrote manuals for a lot of their processing equipment (the equipment that cooks the food). It really is quite fascinating and I miss doing that kind of work.

You know, I’ve traveled to A-B for work …to install and service scales! I’ve been in the clock tower!
Certainly, they have a huge line of PLCs , motor drives and assorted other automation products. Furthermore, to the Milw ppl here, as an MSOE grad, they had a significant presence at my school. They sponsored laboratories and recruited heavily at job fairs, sent speakers during professional career days, donated equipment, etc.