HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — It's easy to overlook the effort that goes into making common consumer products. And while we may take for granted that the construction of a commercial airliner is a fairly complex process, we're less likely to see the creation of something as ubiquitous as a pop bottle to be a precision art. In fact, both processes are well beyond the knowledge of most people - and for those who might like a peek behind the factory's closed doors, Stanford University's Alliance for Innovative Manufacturing has collected almost four hours of behind-the-scenes videos and posted them for public perusal at How Everyday Things Are Made.
One of the very first things you learn upon loading "Made's" homepage is that the video-rich nature of the content is best suited to a broadband connection. That said, there's nothing to prevent dial-up users from visiting the site other than the time required to download each film (estimated by the webmasters to be 5-10 times the length of the video). If you do have a slower connection, this is a site that is best viewed while you're also doing something else - start a download, step away from the computer for a while, and come back after a few minutes. (In order to save as much time as possible, the videos automatically start playing as soon as they've downloaded a sufficient 'head start' on the playback. Therefore, to avoid coming back to a computer half-way through a segment, you may want to stay within earshot, or hit Pause on the video interface as soon as the download begins.)
Judging by reports and reviews at other locations on the Web, a good deal of dial-up users are considering at least some of the films to be worth the wait. Stanford has collected 40 videos documenting the manufacturing processes of everything from jelly beans, to cars, to a Boeing 777. (The jelly beans take longer to make than the cars.) Upon entering the site's interactive section (which uses a Flash interface that resizes for any screen resolution), visitors are treated to the theme from The Magnificent Seven, and a narrated video introduction to the site's contents and capabilities. (A unique and useful feature is an interactive speed control - for slowing down the playback of those time-lapse clips we've all seen of factories at work.) The site can be explored sequentially, or by clicking on specific links via a tabbed navigation interface to the left of the screen.
The 'guided' version of the tour begins with an interactive quiz, designed not so much to reveal your ignorance of various manufacturing processes as to arouse your curiosity. (Though you may never have thought about it before, aren't you just a little curious as to how long it takes to make a jelly bean?) Following the introduction, each category (Transportation, Candy, What You Wear, etc.) precedes its videos with a Think About It question, for which you can submit your best guess or simply read the responses of others. At the end of each category, Apply It invites visitors to test their retention of the videos just seen.
But many visitors (especially time-disadvantaged dial-up users) will simply be moving straight to the videos, and there is some attention-grabbing material here. The site starts big, with aircraft, and a video that spans from stitched canvas wings and hand-carved propellers, to the first Boeing 777 and the assembly of its 3,000,000 parts. The next piece, on the construction of Harley Davidson motorcycles is also impressive - not only for the surprising method of using self-propelled 'carts' to move individual bikes from location to location, but also for some introductory questions that may have never crossed the viewer's mind, but can be major considerations for the manufacturer. (How does a change in humidity affect painting operations?)
Other videos track the fabrication of Ford Mustangs, glass and plastic bottles, denim, crayons, and golf clubs. A collection of Extras holds a few more clips without introductory narrations, while Careers has information for anyone interested in entering the trade, and Processes looks at individual operations independent of their part in a complete manufacturing stream. Finally, a Resources section lists other factory tours available on the web, books for the truly curious, and a very short FAQs collection. (Presumably, the latter will grow with time.)
The presentation has some nice examples of attention to detail, as well as a few minor annoyances. On the positive side are such features as the resizable browser window and extras like those demonstrated in the airplanes video - where captions and an interactive diagram of the aircraft pinpoint what part of the work-in-progress is being presented. On the negative side are the varying volume levels for each video (it would have been helpful if they had been equalized before they were posted), and since the films are contributed by the manufacturers, it's not long before one tires of the self-congratulatory corporate narrations. (Not to mention the indignity of being talked to by a jelly bean.)
Naturally, due to such factors as each video's production values, and each viewer's specific interests, the gee whiz factor <i>will</i> vary from film to film. But overall, How Everyday Things Are Made can fairly be said to offer the Grand Tour of online factory tours.
How Everyday Things Are Made can be found at http://manufacturing.stanford.edu/.