The Shape of Metal
Thoughts on the world of manufacturing
The other week I had a piece in The Bulwark on the announcement by pasta maker Ronzoni that they would be discontinuing pastina, a tiny star-shaped pasta:
The announcement spawned a raft of articles, including many noting the particular loss felt by Italian Americans. (Not me—Barilla beats Ronzoni by a country mile traveled on a Roman road.) Many of the articles emphasized pastina’s status as a classic comfort or sick food. “Italian penicillin,” some call it. It’s true: When I was sick as a kid, my mother made it for me. When my wife was sick once, I went out and found some. (It isn’t as common down in Maryland and Virginia as it is where I grew up in New Jersey.)
But more interesting than the announcement itself or the human interest element is Ronzoni’s reason for halting pastina sales. A company statement said, “After extensive efforts, we regretfully announce that Ronzoni pastina is being discontinued. This wasn’t a decision that we wanted to make.”
Well, then why did they make it?
This was, as I noted, presented as a consumer or human interest news item. But I think there’s a far more fascinating and complicated story here. The reason Ronzoni gave was that a third-party supplier had to make pastina for them with specialized equipment, but that their supplier told them it was done making the tiny pasta. Ronzoni claimed they searched, but were unable to find any other suppliers who were capable of making pastina.
I think a lot of folks would assume that this is an excuse, and the company just isn’t making enough money off the product. In other words, there’s no story here at all, just a corporation being a corporation.
In fact, a Snopes article confirming the news quotes an earlier Ronzoni statement to that effect—though it isn’t linked, and I’m not able to find a source proving that Ronzoni really provided this statement at all. It went: “At one time, we manufactured this product. Unfortunately, there were insufficient sales to support continued production and it has been discontinued.” That isn’t worded very neatly, and it contradicts two aspects of the later statement: one, that the problem was production-related; and two, that only a third-party supplier, and no longer Ronzoni itself, could make the pasta.
I raise this because in a long article published yesterday in NJ.com on the “Great Pastina Panic”—worth a read to grasp just how meaningful this tiny pasta is to Italian Americans—there was a new addition. Ronzoni explicitly claimed that sales, absent the supplier problem, would have continued to be viable:
8th Avenue Food & Provisions [the parent company of Ronzoni] told NJ Advance Media that sales were still “strong” for pastina, “which is more reason why we are disappointed to have to discontinue it.” The company reiterated that it couldn’t find a manufacturer capable of producing pastina that would meet expected standards — including shape and size, but said it would carry on searching.
So, I think it’s very likely that Ronzoni really did run into a problem with their old manufacturer. Perhaps that company simply wasn’t making enough money, but then it wouldn’t be very hard, you’d think, to find a new one. There’s another possibility: the old manufacturer’s equipment and tooling was worn out, and it cost too much to refresh it. Or perhaps it is just difficult/expensive to design and manufacture new industrial-scale pasta dies these days.
Along those lines, there’s this neat podcast episode from The Sporkful that goes into detail on the dies that extrude pasta, and how pasta shapes actually get made. It’s very interesting.
After probing what this production issue might be, I gave two other examples of similar manufacturing issues in the world of precision metalworking/tool-and-die manufacturing. First, the tiny screws that killed Apple’s attempt to make computers and smartphones in America. Second, the story of Japanese audio brand Technics redesigning its classic SL-1200 turntable from scratch.
I go over this in the piece, but Technics discontinued the turntable because the molds and dies used to make the turntable parts were 40 years old and had worn out. (In other words, the machines that made the machines.) Technics redesigned the turntable from scratch a few years later, and one of their people noted that doing this sort of tool-and-die stuff today is much more expensive than it was in the 1970s. Only one mold remained from the old turntable: the dustcover. The new one still uses it.
And then Apple. In an article I read about their screw woes a couple of years ago, someone was quoted saying that you can get all sorts of precision parts made on demand in Shenzhen, but you can’t do it anywhere in America anymore. Southern China is the workshop of the world. These lines of hard-earned knowledge have largely gone extinct in America.
The thing is, you can’t just go from a world-class tool-and-die landscape to a tiny industry that can output a few screws when needed. The capacity to make the tiny screws grows out of a much larger industrial picture. The engineers and related industries and firms retire or move on. Think of how hard it is to remember where exactly you were in a task after getting interrupted for a few minutes. That’s a tiny taste of what it’s like to try to revive a mothballed industry.
Apple couldn’t easily commission these particular components reliably. How? It’s just a screw. But if you wish to make a screw, you must first invent the universe. Or, at least invent a full-dress tool-and-die manufacturing industry, one of whose outputs is a tiny screw.
Because it isn’t just the die. It’s the tools and machines that make dies. And the tools and machines that make those machines. And the ecosystem of engineering knowhow and tacit knowledge that make all of it run smoothly and efficiently enough to be competitive.
Financial journalist Eamonn Fingleton wrote, in his somewhat jingoistic protectionist manifesto In the Jaws of the Dragon, that when America loses a manufacturing sector to Asia, we’re not just losing the manufacturing plants. We’re also losing all of that accumulated knowledge embodied in the workers who maintained the derelict industry, and who now have no one to pass it on to. So it was, perhaps, that the American tool and die landscape simply couldn’t compete with that of southern China. This has always seemed to me the strongest of the arguments against unfettered free trade.
I think you can sum it all up this way: manufacturing is not like coding. So much is digital now that it feels like you can just conjure things into being. Any idea for an app or a program that you can come up with, and that current computing power can support, can be written out of nothing but lines of code. (And all of the physical infrastructure that underlies our digital infrastructure.)
It’s a funny thing: one of the common talking points in the political debates over free trade was that as we lost the old manufacturing jobs, we would gain more high-tech jobs and employ more people in those fields. I wonder to what extent a lot of people really thought that computer programming was sort of like a high-tech version of manufacturing, or that manufacturing was like an old-fashioned version of programming.
But except in the most abstract sense that both involve making things in a certain way, they are not at all alike. Manufacturing is an ongoing process. If we learn by doing, we forget by not doing. I have a feeling this really goes beyond free trade, and goes much deeper.
One person wrote in response to my article, “We can no longer build the world we live in.” A large number of people in, or with experience of, manufacturing found and shared this piece, and mostly agreed with it. Many felt that manufacturing and the issues the sector deals with are underappreciated and poorly understood—even after almost three years of shortages and supply chain issues that shone a light on a lot of this.
All of this might seem overwrought when we’re talking about a pasta shape. But that’s probably just the tip of the iceberg. It reminds me of those stories about how certain critical infrastructure still runs on hopelessly obsolete computer operating systems. This stuff falls out of commercial currency, but it doesn’t go away. Who knows what other everyday products are still being made on ancient factory tooling, with their popularity insufficient to support building it from scratch today.
It’s kind of spooky, really—the thought that as we get richer, we vault past these seemingly outdated industries, only to realize that a great deal of decay in information, knowledge, and expertise has taken place when we go back to revisit them. You can’t store this stuff like books in a library. Use it or lose it.
Given all this complexity, it’s also sort of spooky to contemplate how anything gets manufactured at all.
Bonus reading: if this sort of thing interests you, check out a really fun piece I did back in 2021 tracking down the very last cassette tape player mechanism being made anywhere in the world.
Some people believe that it would be effectively impossible to manufacture a high-end cassette deck of the sort you could buy in the 1970s-1990s. Too much of the engineering knowledge and industrial infrastructure (materials, factory tooling, etc.) is gone.
Now, “effectively” is doing some work there. Throw enough millions at an engineering problem, regarding a product that used to be in mass production, and you can figure it out. But the point stands that a combination of economics and knowledge decay have put a lot of simple and once-common artifacts behind a veil for us today.
The Curious Case of the Last Record Changer
A Repair Journey Through Low-Cost Manufacturing
We’re Still Making Car Cassette Players
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The larger take-a-way is more that most companies have outsourced so many key components of their products, they are in a way no longer the producer but only an assembler. For Apple you can argue they still are the brain behind most of it, and Apple product are short-lived enough anyway, to redesign something. But in the pasta maker case, they were pretty much an empty holding company that only holds the brand name. And then when the actual producer of the product doesn't get enough of the profit share, the product seizes to exist.
Too much outsourcing means, you are not the producer, and can lose it all in a heartbeat.
In my industry there is a woven type material i buy made in TX. When the machine starting breaking they had to find a guy to fix it. Thing is he was retired and did come and fix the machine, but what happens when he's passed?
All the other competitors are in Brazil or China. We don't make stuff anymore. In Canada we buy and sell each other overpriced homes.