Recently, Akiba took me to visit his friend’s zipper factory. I love visiting factories: no matter how simple the product, I learn something new.
This factory is a highly-automated, vertically-integrated manufacturer. To give you an idea of what that means, they take this:
Ingots of 93% zinc, 7% aluminum alloy; approx 1 ton shown
Compressed sawdust pellets, used to fuel the ingot smelter
Rice, used to feed the workers
And turn it into this:
Finished puller+slider assemblies
In between the input material and the output product is a fully automated die casting line, a set of tumblers and vibrating pots to release and polish the zippers, and a set of machines to de-burr and join the puller to the slider. I think I counted less than a dozen employees in the facility, and I’m guessing their capacity well exceeds a million zippers a month.
I find vibrapots mesmerizing. I actually don’t know if that’s what they are called — I just call them that (I figure within minutes of this going up, a comment will appear informing me of their proper name). The video below shows these miracles at work. It looks as if the sliders and pullers are lining themselves up in the right orientation by magic, falling into a rail, and being pressed together into that familiar zipper form, in a single fully automated machine.
If you put your hand in the pot, you’ll find there’s no stirrer to cause the motion that you see; you’ll just feel a strong vibration. If you relax your hand, you’ll find it starting to move along with all the other items in the pot. The entire pot is vibrating in a biased fashion, such that the items inside tend to move in a circular motion. This pushes them onto a set of rails which are shaped to take advantage of asymmetries in the object to allow only the objects that happen to jump on the rail in the correct orientation through to the next stage.
Despite the high level of automation in this factory, many of the workers I saw were performing this one operation:
This begs the question of why is it that some zippers have fully automated assembly procesess, whereas others are semi-automatic?
The answer, it turns out, is very subtle, and it boils down to this:
I’ve added red arrows to highlight the key difference between the zippers. This tiny tab, barely visible, is the difference between full automation and a human having to join millions of sliders and pullers together. To understand why, let’s review one critical step in the vibrapot operation.
We paused the vibrapot responsible for sorting the pullers into the correct orientation for the fully automatic process, so I could take a photo of the key step:
As you can see, when the pullers come around the rail, their orientation is random: some are facing right, some facing left. But the joining operation must only insert the slider into the smaller of the two holes. The tiny tab, highlighted above, allows gravity to cause all the pullers to hang in the same direction as they fall into a rail toward the left.
The semi-automated zipper design doesn’t have this tab; as a result, the design is too symmetric for a vibrapot to align the puller. I asked the factory owner if adding the tiny tab would save this labor, and he said absolutely.
At this point, it seems blindingly obvious to me that all zippers should have this tiny tab, but the zipper’s designer wouldn’t have it. Even though the tab is very small, a user can feel the subtle bumps, and it’s perceived as a defect in the design. As a result, the designer insists upon a perfectly smooth tab which accordingly has no feature to easily and reliably allow for automatic orientation.
I’d like to imagine that most people, after watching a person join pullers to sliders for a couple minutes, will be quite alright to suffer the tiny bump on the tip of their zipper to save another human the fate of having to manually align pullers into sliders for 8 hours a day. I suppose alternately, an engineer could spend countless hours trying to design a more complex method for aligning the pullers and sliders, but (a) the zipper’s customer probably wouldn’t pay for that effort and (b) it’s probably net cheaper to pay unskilled labor to manually perform the sorting. They’ve already automated everything else in this factory, so I figure they’ve thought long and hard about this problem, too. My guess is that robots are expensive to build and maintain; people are self-replicating and largely self-maintaining. Remember that third input to the factory, “rice”? Any robot’s spare parts have to be cheaper than rice to earn a place on this factory’s floor.
However, in reality, it’s by far too much effort to explain this to end customers; and in fact quite the opposite happens in the market. Because of the extra labor involved in putting these together, the zippers cost more; therefore they tend to end up in high-end products. This further enforces the notion that really smooth zippers with no tiny tab on them must be the result of quality control and attention to detail.
My world is full of small frustrations similar to this. For example, most customers perceive plastics with a mirror-finish to be of a higher quality than those with a satin finish. While functionally there is no difference in the plastic’s structural performance, it takes a lot more effort to make something with a mirror-finish. The injection molding tools must be painstakingly and meticulously polished, and at every step in the factory, workers must wear white gloves; mountains of plastic are scrapped for hairline defects, and extra films of plastic are placed over mirror surfaces to protect them during shipping.
For all that effort, for all that waste, what’s the first thing a user does? Put their dirty fingerprints all over the mirror finish. Within a minute of coming out of the box, all that effort is undone. Or worse yet, they leave the protective film on, resulting in a net worse cosmetic effect than a satin finish. Contrast this to a satin finish. Satin finishes don’t require protective films, are easier to handle, last longer, and have much better yields. In the user’s hands, they hide small scratches, fingerprints, and bits of dust. Arguably, the satin finish offers a better long-term customer experience than the mirror finish.
But that mirror finish sure does look pretty in photographs and showroom displays!