Lucy's Newspaper Columns

Common Ground is a monthly newspaper column appearing in the New Hampshire Seacoast Newspapers.  Professional photographer Lucy also does the accompanying photographs.

Manufacturing Wonder

This column appeared on October 24, 2000

We walk into the plant on a Saturday afternoon.  We are in Sandusky, Ohio, not far from Detroit.  The company makes plastic components for automobiles.

The first thing I notice is a moving robot inside a wire enclosure.  A big yellow mechanical arm lifts four newly-molded black plastic parts and places them onto a moving belt.  Upright on the belt, the parts move quietly around a corner and disappear from view.  The robot arm slightly resembles a human arm.  As I watch it move and realize that, except when down for repairs, it does this 24 hours a day, I begin to feel tired.  Then I tell myself, "For heaven's sake, it's a robot!"

Injection molding:  this is the process.  Thousands of objects that all us of see and use each day have been manufactured in this way.  The equipment before us has just molded those four plastic parts from a thick liquid.  Moments earlier it created that liquid from tiny dark-gray plastic pellets which, as I contemplate a supply of them in a barrel, remind me of photographs of the black-sand beaches of Hawaii.

How does this heavy metal machine convert black plastic sand into a mushy liquid?  Inside, hidden from our view, it inserts a quantity of these pellets into one end of an array of chambers, tubes, and joints.  Within these
chambers it heats the black plastic sand.  Since plastic is an insulator, not easy to melt, the heating is accomplished partly by moving augurs that create friction.  Within seconds, inside its dark chamber, the black coarse sand turns to liquid which, our guide tells us, has a consistency "between honey and roofing tar."

Then, under great pressure and still out of sight, the equipment pushes the liquid sideways into a metal mold.  The empty spaces in the mold, areas receiving the mush, may be narrow and delicate in shape, as, for example, the walls of plastic food containers.  Such containers are among countless everyday objects made by injection molding.

The equipment consists mainly of two large rectangles along with tubes, wires, and attachments.  Forcing of the mush into the mold takes place inside one of them.  The other moves toward it in the opposite direction to
counter the pressure of the injecting apparatus.  Pressure goes up to 30,000 pounds per square inch.  These two massive units move toward each other and, amid  moderate background factory noise, are quietly joined for one or two minutes.  Then the great units part smoothly and on four arms we see four newly created parts.  The arms drop them onto a flat area.  Another  robot arm picks them up and places them on an assembly line. They move off toward an inspection area.  The equipment repeats this process endlessly.

The factory is a half-mile wide, 3/4-mile long.  Running through it is a railroad track on which freight cars await loading of  new parts.  Colors of this environment are gray, brown, brown-yellow and black.

Moving through the vast gray, brown, and brown-yellow environment of the plant, we round a corner and see a glittering surprise.  It makes me think of a single flower or jewel on a dull pavement.  Here robot arms are laying down bright-red, just-molded,  taillight "lenses" or outside covers.  Some have amber-colored and clear inserts.  Until now I've never been particularly interested in automobile taillights, but now I watch in fascination.

After each parting of the big rectangles robot arms are laying down these lenses, four at a time.  They shine in a gleaming transparent red, red clearer and lighter than cranberry juice and more light-transmitting than rubies or stained glass.  Their color stands out here but would shine in any surroundings.  Parts of these lenses sparkle because in the molding itself tiny lenses have been created inside them.  Like the other parts the lenses move slowly away, on a belt,  I think that one of these alone, displayed in a certain way, could stand as a piece of contemporary sculpture.

As we continue through the plant I remember these lenses.  They attract me not so much as a product of the automobile industry as an example of something broader:  beauty in manufacturing.  I think about the developments in chemistry, materials science, and engineering that have lead to this kind of manufacture of millions of everyday objects and components.  Any reader of this column can probably look up from the page and see one or many things that have been injection-molded.

Already anticipating this column, I ask our guide whether he could arrange for someone to bring me one of these lenses, one of those discarded because of tiny defects.  He did, and here it is, in the accompanying photograph, seen upside down because it works better than way as an art form, against sun and sky.

So now I see automobile taillights differently, and with a new interest.  Isn't that where new discoveries lead us: seeing differently?

Visit a manufacturing plant.  You never know what you'll discover, both on the plant floor and in your imagination.

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