Readings | Making a Toaster From Scratch | Week 4

Tuesday, February 26th 2019, 9:59:13 pm

After watching Thomas Thwaites talk about his efforst making a toaster from scratch, I’m left with a newfound appreciation for the infrastructure supporting the manufacturing of basic goods I use in my day-to-day life.

His initial reaction to opening up his toaster sums up the challenge of trying to D.I.Y.-make the most basic products:

bought the cheapest toaster I could find, took it home and was kind of dismayed to discover that, inside this object, which I’d bought for just 3.49 pounds, there were 400 different bits made out of a hundred-plus different materials. I didn’t have the rest of my life to do this project.

The challenge begins with tracing back the lineage of each component and reverse engineering them. This involves taking something as ubiquitious in our homes such as steel, as Thwaites uses as his first example, and realizing that it was once iron and that iron was once rock and that just to get the basic metallic frame of a toaster set up you have to follow a very complex supply chain and manufacturing process in reverse. The complexity of this chain for even a product as simple and cheap as a toaster is really what stood out the most to me and left me asking myself the same question Thwaites asked himself:

How do I make these rocks into components from a toaster?

As if the supply chain issue wasn’t enough, the craft/process is equally complex. When we operate at the sheer volume of mass manufacturing, the complex process automation makese sense (economies of scale and what not). But at a scale of a single, hand-made item that process is prohibitively expensive and unavailable. Therefore, its necessary to rediscover these pretty ancient systems by which to process the materials into toaster components. Or as Thwaites describes the problem of discovering smaller-scale manufacturing methods:

The smaller the scale you want to work on, the further back in time you have to go.

Ultimately, the 1000+ pound sticker price of his clearly inferior, hand-made, non-functioning toaster on the shelf alongside the others frames the problem quite well: the modern world literally cannot afford hand-made toasters. This leaves me thinking that many of the “hand-made” or “hand-crafted” products I buy are purely luxury items. They are subtle metaphors for the absurdity of my own elegiac dissatisfaction with the mass-produced goods that are so embedded in our modern lives perhaps so deeply we’ve passed a point of no return.

As he pointed out, we may now be livingin in “the Anthropocene” era or “the age of Man”, defined perhaps by the strata of plastic material we are leaving behind in the geological record. This means that mass-produced goods are not just at a point of now return, their polymers and raw materials might just be the legacy we leave behind and define our species in the long-run.

Omar Delarosa avatar

Written by Omar Delarosa who lives in Brooklyn and builds things using computers.

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