Clutching at Straws : A piece to the unsung product design engineers of this world part deux…


The Men behind the Machines

We don’t often get to see engineers and tech developers in great light in the media, most come across as nerdy introvert, socially inept idiots……which is probably how it is in real life :-/ .

However in recent years, there is one fictional character that has made it cool again to design stuff.

His name, Tony Stark as created by Stan “I will never die” Lee and portrayed by Robert Downey Junior in Marvel’s Iron Man and Avengers movie Franchises.

Below is a clip of him doing what he does best, testing and designing his first real attempt at an Iron Man Suit. It’s probably one of the best scenes out of all the films and it’s a great rendition of how someone with dedication can bring a cool concept to life.

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I’m not exactly sure what makes him come across as a socially acceptable character, oh wait, yeah I do

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Silly me 🙂

Knowing this though, even if he wasn’t all those things he described himself as, wouldn’t you still kinda like to meet someone who has that much creativity behind them, just to pick their brains as to how they manged such a feat?

I see some of you nodding your heads, good…

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The reason I bring that up you ask?

Well in my last post, I was going on about how we never get to see developers of technology in real life, they all appear to be huddled away in some far corner of the galaxy (also known as China), secretly working on stuff, for the good of mankind (and  capitalist growth models everywhere, woop woop).

Just like how some of you nodders would like to meet Tony Stark, I pointed out that I would like to meet some of these folks in order to find out exactly why things are the way they are.

As I mentioned before, nothing in our lives is created without some purpose and everything, no matter how inconsequential has been painstakingly analysed to the nth degree to perform a specific function.

Infact some components are designed so you never even notice them.

Just like modern day set and costume designers, stunt men, practical and special effects experts in theatre, film and photography, their purpose is to give enough information to keep you in the story, without drawing attention to themselves.

Without their detail, you’d quickly stop buying into a scene and the project would lose your attention and  its credibility.

The same can be said about various things in our everyday life.

Many are purposely designed to appear as invisible as possible so you can carry on your day to day business without even noticing. Yet you would find out pretty quickly, if all these little things weren’t in place, life as we know it would quickly come to a halt and we’d be thrown back to the stone age quicker than a Barack Obama sex tape going viral.

Don’t believe me, imagine a world without door handles for one second….

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Ha, I'm not so unimportant now, am I, Smart arse?

Ha, I’m not so unimportant now, am I, Smart arse?

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With this in mind, I would like to dedicate a post to one such product and the unknown heroes that have helped shape it and consequently, the world we live in today.

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Ex-Straw-dinary…

I’ve been fascinated with the Plastic Drink’s Straw for at least the last ten years. But not just any drink’s straw, specifically the McDonalds’ drink straw…

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I think the McDonalds’ straw is a modern part of throwaway consumable art, far more relevant than Andy Warhol’s depiction of the Cambells’s tomato soup can, yet infinitely less noticeable and infinitely more available.

The product has no commercial value.  You can’t buy one, heck you wouldn’t even need to, you could walk right inside any McDonalds in the world and pick one up without purchasing anything and walk out with one, just like that.

Yet it is probably the single greatest piece of functional modern art. The fact that it is overlooked by pretty much everyone on the planet just makes it that bit more beautiful and relevant in my eyes. Dare I say, if i had to put one object in a time capsule that represented our modern day times, it would be that.

It’s THAT significant and insignificant all at the same time.

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You probably thinking straws suck as functional art..get it..suck….ah forget it

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So in my best Loyd Grossman accent, I’ll now describe to you some of the key characteristics I’ve picked up in its design that makes it stand out as art.

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Design Characteristics

Now I know fuck all about plastics, but I presume, that the straw is made from pellets of some sort of oil based polymer, probably polyethylene or polypropylene. This is probably the case so that it won’t contaminate any food or liquid it comes into contact with (leaching out poisonous goodies which will end up inside you and me). This is then mixed with some dye for aesthetic purposes and is heated up under pressure till it starts to exude plastic properties (like cheese), then is extruded (pulled) through a female cylindrical open die (mould) and then rapidly cooled in order to create that straw shape we all know and love.

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how straws are made

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It’s then probably cut up into its appropriate length and then packaged accordingly. I would guess in order to make the whole thing profitable, the entire process would be automated with tens of thousands of straws being  made daily by a single machine.

The colour design of the straw is a white base with two colour strips on it, a pale red and a pale yellow, essentially breaking the straw up into four quadrants.

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The two white strips allows the user to subtly detect the fluid going through it on suction so they can see what they are drinking. A study must have been done to agree on the colours as the yellow and the red parts aesthetically compliments all the carbonated type beverages McDonalds’ stock in their establishments.

This would typically be

  • Clear lemonade based drink
  • Black cola based drinks
  • Orange fanta based drinks
  • Purple blackcurrant based drinks

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So whatever drink is chosen, seeing it flow through the straw is always a spectacle, especially for younger children.Very clever thinking that makes drinking a small treat and also a pleasing looking experience, ultimately making the user want to come back and experience it again. When that peer pressure comes from a child, that’s significant repeat business on continually feeding a family each time. Like I said, very clever.

There are also some subliminal messages with the use of such colours but I’ll get back to that another time.

With respect to the McDonalds’ straw packaging, it’s encased in a paper wrap which keeps it clean and is unique from most other fast food  drinking straw wraps that are made from plastic or don’t even have any and are kept in dispensers. From an artistic point of view, this makes the product and the brand instantly recognisable anywhere in the world and gives it an iconic timeless feel to it.

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The wrap itself has a structural weak point at its ends where the paper has been crimped together to form seals, individually separating out each straw. The paper seal has been designed to be strong enough to keep the straw from everyday contamination (even when wet) and relatively sterile, while being structurally weak enough to allow for a gentle focused poke from the straw  to pierce through it.

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Now the straw is  light enough to be easily handled by even a child, yet strong enough in its main axis  that it can force itself through the lid of a mcdonald’s without causing any structural integrity issues.

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Infact, in the hands of a skilled individual, the poke from a McDonald’s straw could actually pierce through skin, yet in most, it is completely harmless. Such pressures still shouldn’t cause it to crack or hole which would compromise the straw in performing its overall function.

Its strength is not only derived from the specific material characteristics of the plastic but from its shape. The hollow tube is structurally the strongest shape possible for a 2d based shape extruded in a third parallel plane (i.e. making a 2d shape 3d, like turning a square into a cube). This gives its the best strength to size ratio of any other form, delivering the greatest performance while using the least material possible. Cheap cheap

Evidently, the strongest  strength to size ratio object is a sphere, which is essentially a circle extruded in every plane possible and the extra faff trimmed off. This is why you find most of nature’s smallest elements exist as spheres and why raindrops end up being spherical with external uniform pressure applied to them. That’s a sidetrack by the by, you know how I love the rain 😉

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The straw is designed to fit comfortably in one’s mouth and fits deep enough into your mouth to avoid your anterior teeth, making it less likely for the carbonated fluid to cause cavities and erosion to your enamel. It is also made to be somewhat without taste so it does not interfere with your beverage guzzling experience.

The diameter of the straw has also been carefully engineered  so when suction is applied from your lips, creating a vaccuum in your mouth, it creates a pressure differential with the external pressure which causes the  liquid to say a big ‘FUCK YOU’ to gravity and flow up the straw into your mouth.

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The diameter has also been controlled in order to not get ice components (whether cubed or crushed) blocked at its entry and therefore would cause a reduction in suction by the user and an inability to consume the liquid.

It’s also been designed to make sure you are getting just the right amount flow of beverage coming through. Too small and too wide would either increase the force required in order to get that bitch up in the first place, or provide insufficient refreshment from each suck.  With regards to the former, the term sucking a golfball through a hose pipe should come to mind in order to throw up any visual aids.

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Also considering that McDonalds’ straw is a one size fits all product, this ‘perfect’ diameter must be great for toddlers, young children, teenagers, adults and elderly folk alike, who have all varying levels of suction control. To have one product that literally caters to billions of people everyday is just unheard of.

Now the length of the straw itself is a perfect distance so that it not only reaches the bottom of the cup but can also empty any remnants inside. It must also be long enough so that it covers the average distance between an individuals’ mouth and hand when either holding a drink up to drink, or leaning forward to take a sip off a table, capable of still extracting liquid, even when the cup is tilted.

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This is particularly clever considering, first the aforementioned one size fits all stance and the varying ratios of body sizes the straw needs to cater to. It is also clever because of the different containers the straws must work with, going from small cups to quite frankly humungous cups, I mean seriously, who needs over a litre of any beverage with a mcdonalds meal, that’s just madness. I’m not here to hate though, just saying..

All in all, the straw is designed with as much detail as the finest samurai sword made from hand folded steel. If that can be considered functional art, why not this? After all, it is indeed a weapon of mass consumption

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Social Influence

While I have covered some of the detail that has clearly gone into its design, I want to briefly talk about another side of its value and that is its influence on our everyday lives. Here we can amass its indirect value and influence on us which is significantly more than what most people expect.

I would also say while everyone’s eating habits are notoriously different, a main meal usually starts off with a sip of a drink and is finished off with the remnants of a drink at the end.

Thus the entire meal duration can be hinged on how long it takes to consume said beverage infront of you. So with regards to McDonalds and other fast food establishments, the straw diameter must allow sufficient fluid flow for an average beverage to be finished say in about 12 minutes. This then gives a template for the overall meal time of each customer. This in turn can help them calculate how much money they can make.

 

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The genius of this is that for those who do not finish the drink within that period of time, the straw-lid-cup arrangement is designed in a way to be transportable, easily accessible while walking, consumable while driving and also disposable with just a single hand and all with a reduced likelihood of  significant spillage (unlike say canned or other bottled drinks).

Infact, it was because of the straw that modern cars now have drinks holders in them in order to fulfill this purpose and why the drive through food industry has boomed big time.

So the customer can leave the premises before they’ve finished their drinks, Opening up valuable seating real estate for an increased turnover of customers per hour. Going further and looking at takeaways this ultimately means a market not limited by the size of your establishment with customers capable of easily transporting their meals elsewhere. Food can truly now be fast and mobile and your profits are now completely based on how much food you can make rather than the bottleneck of how big your retail space is. So a tiny McDonalds in a train station with no seating can make ten times more than a fully fledged restaurant, with all the supporting costs stripped right down and crazy margins on their produce.

It’s the perfect crime

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One could argue if not for the modernisation of the straw and cover combination, this expanse of the fast food industry would not have been possible, with the thought of meals still requiring a table arrangement in order to consume.

One could literally track the development of the straw/lid dynamic and the rising profits of most fast food companies and also the increased levels of obesity rates in most westernised countries. You could probably do a study on the global consumption of straws and find that the healthiest nations in the world import significantly less than the rest (all things being equal of course)

Infact, I could dare to say it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. and are relationship with food was forever destined to be affected by it.

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Speaking of camels getting their back broken

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CAN’T STOP LAUGHING

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So wrong on so many levels but if you look closely, she’s sipping on some lemon tea through a straw, the prophecy was correct after all

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Only Human?

Here is the thing,  despite its clever design and human influence, none of these factors came along by chance.

Someone slaved away for months if not years with countless prototypes with countless combinations and permutations of all of these factors until they got one that ticked all the boxes.

Then perhaps the purse strings owners decided to put business related factors on it as well and further tinkering was done until it fit all those economic criteria as well. Unfortunately, I am not in the straw making business, I’m not an economist and hopefully it’s painstakingly quite clear by now I don’t know anyone else in it so I can’t give you any economic insight into its manufacturing and distribution. 😦

As for its influence on us, well this may surprise you but it was always designed in order to do this, we just were never clever enough to see the signs, it was right underneath our noses all along. Just like the work done by the set designers, there was enough there but not enough to take our full attention, leaving it to impact our entire way of life in plain sight.

And the Clever bastard whose brainstorm it was to include these items in their food chains and the engineers who helped bring it to fruition, whom have collectively influenced our health and eating habits more than anyone else in recent and arguably all history will NEVER be known, recognised or acknowledged, EVER.

Now if those aren’t the signs of a self deprecating artist, I don’t know what are.

In all seriously though, doesn’t knowing all this wonderful info about probably the most cast away object in humanity make your ovaries want to explode? Because I’m pretty sure mine did about 9 minutes ago…

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no….what do you mean no???

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I guess I’m just one of those stereotypical engineers then, I’ll get back to my nerdy introvert, socially inept idiotic ways.

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QUICK, TO THE BASEMENT!!!!

nerd1

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Other potential sites of interest

On gathering some pics from this, I stumble across a few interesting sites that may provide some more information for those of you who happen to now be slightly more interested than before. It seems there are at least TWO other people who share the same love for analysing the mundane, specifically the straw and to be fair, they’ve done a much better job at gathering useful information than I have.

There’s also good ol wikipedia which can help

The Modern flexible drinking straw

Wikiwawapediaaaaa

How Straws are made

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If you happen to have have a random object that grabs your interest, please let me know in the comments section, I’d love to see if there are more people out there that appreciate the little things in life and love analysing the devil in the detail in our day-to-day devices.

Danke

 

 

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