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A Dirty Business

The products we engineers design are all tools of some sort—tools that in one way or another extend or amplify our own natural capabilities: a fluoroscope, a kettle, a phone, binoculars, a saw, a Martian robot, a toothbrush, a bicycle.

Years ago, a few weeks into my first engineering job, I was contemplating the bicycle—in particular, the aluminum bicycle frame that my then employer revolutionized in the mid-1980s. It was a little more than a kilogram of AL6061-T6 tubes shaped into a gorgeous structural frame.

How did this bicycle frame come to be? Before the frame was prepped and painted, it was an assembly of aluminum tubes joined by TIG welds, heat-treated, straightened, and finish ground. Before that, the tubes were extruded into shape, swaged, cut, mitered, and tacked in a fixture that set the frame geometry. Before that, the aluminum was alloyed with other metals to give the material the desired mechanical properties. Before that, with the Hall-Hérault process, aluminum oxide was smelted into aluminum billets. And before that, with the Bayer process, aluminum oxide was chemically extracted from bauxite, an ore found in abundance in tropical topsoil.

So, there you have it—a handful of dirt is transformed into the most efficient means of human conveyance ever conceived. Pure magic. Every physical tool we’ve ever designed and fabricated, starting with the blades and anvils shaped on the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya three million years ago, started as stuff we found in the ground.

It’s a dirty business, but that’s design engineering. And I love it.

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