Thanks for the Toilet Paper, My Robot Friends

The TV show How It’s Made shines a light on our mechanized culture.

Let me tell you how toilet paper is made, though I’ll warn you that the story’s a little dull. First, recycled paper is shredded and then agitated in warm water for 10 minutes, making a pulp. The pulp is cleaned, bleached, and spread across a flat screen that’s passed over a hot dryer. The pulp dries instantly, forming a long, feathery ply of toilet paper just four-thousandths of an inch thick. Meanwhile, strips of cardboard are brushed with glue and wound around a rod to make a cardboard tube. Finally, two plies of the delicate paper are attached and wound on to the tubes, which are then cut into regulation-size TP rolls and shuttled off to be packaged.

So, yes—that sounds about as exciting as an appointment with your accountant. And yet watching toilet paper being produced—as you can see in the clip below from the amazing TV show How It’s Madeis irresistibly absorbing. The TP factory is completely automated. While human beings oversee the production line, they are largely removed from the operation; from the first stage to the last, toilet paper is made by a series of ingenious machines strung together by a system of conveyors so precise they seem to have been ripped from a gargantuan Rube Goldberg machine. In the back of your mind, you knew something like this was behind your toilet paper (you didn’t think people were sewing each sheet by hand)—but who would have guessed that the cardboard tubes ride up to meet the paper on a little elevator of their own?

How It’s Made isn’t new; the half-hour Canadian program has been airing in the United States on the Discovery Channel since 2001 (it now also runs on the Science Channel), and it has been translated into several languages for broadcast around the world. Over the years, the show has offered a peek into the production of a fantastically random assortment of everyday things—jeans, apple juice, aircraft landing gears, canned corn, bicycle helmets, pipe organs, newspapers, paintballs, artificial eyes, nuts, car engines, suits of armor, kites, wooden ducks, darts, duvets, sardines, gliders, and plantain chips, among a few hundred other objects. I first came upon the show during a bout of insomnia a few years ago—reruns air at odd times—and I’ve been addicted ever since; plotless and divided into four segments per episode, How It’s Made is ideal for folks looking to waste time on the couch.

Lately, though, it’s been hard to watch the show without pondering the larger news of the day. As we debate the fate of some of the largest manufacturing companies in the United States and worry over the end of a nation in which we “make things,” How It’s Made is a reminder of the relentless drive of automation. The show makes an oxymoron of the term “manufacturing jobs”: Only the rarest products require more than a few people to manufacture them, as everything from gummy worms to automobile engines shoots off the line with only the slightest human intervention. Take a look at the production of stackable potato chips, for example. A human hand enters the picture only at the very end—her job is to throw out the few bum chips from the line. Other than that, Pringles go from potato flakes to your mouth without anybody touching a tuber.

How It’s Made’s production is as streamlined as many of the items it profiles. In each segment, a narrator describes the on-screen action as high-speed cameras focus on key steps in the production line. The voice-over is straightforward and informative, if peppered with groaning puns and one-liners: “You could say that the boomerang is a bit of a throwback to primitive times,” begins one segment. Or: “Water heaters may look uninspiring, but, inside, they’re hot stuff.” This disembodied voice is the show’s only real human presence. There are no first-person interviews and few identifying labels to indicate what brand of product is being made (or where production is occurring). Even when humans are in the shot, they’re kept anonymous—everyone is called “a worker” or “a craftsman.” (Much else about the production seems cloaked in mystery. When I asked for an interview with producers, a representative of Productions MAJ, the Montreal-based company that makes How It’s Made, told me that the firm would consent only if Slate agreed to give it final review over this story. I declined.)

The series’ decision to focus on machine rather than man is the right one—nowhere else can you find such stunning pictures from the undocumented corners of mechanized culture. At its best, How It’s Made is a celebration of industrial ingenuity; it revels in every well-thought-out idea for how to turn raw material into finished product, especially for crucial but throwaway items like toilet paper, whose production few of us ever consider. The machines make for mesmerizing visuals—they’re so precise, so indefatigable, so diligent, so repeatedly perfect. Robots craft air bags and contact lenses perfectly every time, never stopping for a break, never messing up. It’s also surprising how much planning seems to have gone into making all the little things we use everyday—who would have known that matchbooks and bubble gum were so complicated?

My favorite How It’s Made segments peel back the seedier side of modern production. If you ever want to enjoy a picnic again, don’t watch this segment on hot dogs, and if you like breakfast, avoid this piece on factory egg production. The most unsettling piece I’ve seen so far was the one on the hatching of baby chicks. As the tiny creatures get passed along a conveyor as carelessly as any other widget, you witness the seamless blend of animal and machine.

Maybe I’m being too pessimistic about the rise of the machines. Amid all these whirring robots, you do notice some work that only people can manage. Nearly everything about making a car windshield is computerized, but only a highly trained human can spot defects in the glass. Strobe lights also require people—the high-intensity bulbs used in airplanes and emergency vehicles begin with glass tubes that are shaped by skilled glass-blowers. Furniture is also labor-intensive—I counted at least a half-dozen people assisting in the production of a reclining couch. It’s possible that soon, robots will be able to make furniture, too—but they’ll have a hard time replacing the woman whose job it is to sit on each couch to measure its comfort level. Now, that’s the job for me.