How How It's Made Is Made

Manufacturing is getting more complicated. The TV show that documents it isn't.

<em>How It's Made</em>
In 2001, the Discovery Channel in Canada launched a brand new show. How It’s Made would chronicle how everyday objects were sliced, diced, glued, packaged, and assembled. The first season covered everything from steel to apple juice to pantyhose, tracing their production from start to end.
Now, 13 years later, How It’s Made (now on the Science Channel) has just surpassed its 300th episode. Episode number 305 covered skeletal replicas, ice buckets and servers, inground pools and dining chairs. Over the course of the show’s life, the producers have tackled everything from steel wool to lunar rover replicas. But beyond the screen, the past 13 years have also seen huge changes in production cycles, and the techniques by which many of the objects we use every day are made. More and more episodes of How It's Made feature clean rooms, and technology. And I wondered if perhaps, because how things are made is changing, how How It’s Made is made might be changing too.
So I called up their producers to see if my little theory was right. It’s not. In fact, they said, part of the reason How It’s Made is still so successful, is that it hasn’t changed much. Yes, they’re shooting in clean rooms more often. But in fact, part of the reason the show has stuck around so long, is that it has a really successful and standard formula. “I think what is one of the great appeals of the show as a viewer myself is how little has changed over the years,” Rita Mullin, the general manager of the Science Channel, told me. “This is formulaic in the best sense of the word.”
Wyatt Channell, the executive producer of How It’s Made did admit that the show isn’t exactly the same as it was in 2001. The producers have gotten faster, he says, shooting each segment in just two or three days. And the language of production has changed. People understand what gluing something together or cutting it apart means. They don’t have the same kind of familiarity with superconductors or lasers. Channell says that in tackling these newer pieces, it’s all about figuring out how to tell the story. “I’ve always heard that jazz are the notes that they don’t play,” he said, “and a lot of the craft behind what the How It’s Made team does is figuring out how they can skip steps and which aren’t necessary to tell the story.”
Here, for example, is a recent segment on external hard drives.
The machines here are mesmerizing, and it shows the process broadly, but the show has never really been in the game of trying to fully explain how something works. And in fact, the real magic of How It’s Made isn’t when they’re telling you how something that’s clearly complex and technological like a hard drive or an MRI machine is built. It’s when they show you the process by which simple, everyday objects are made. “Our motto is 'question everything,' and because of How It’s Made, when you look at the items around you and understand how this lamp was made or that door handle was made,” said Bernadette McDaid, the vice president of production for the Science Channel.
My favorite episode of all time, for example, is the one about sandpaper. Which seems possibly simple to make: Slap some glue onto some paper and sprinkle on some sand. It turns out that sandpaper isn’t even usually made of paper, and the process of affixing the grains involves all kinds of magnets and something called an “electrostatic pit” in which an electrical field creates “a mini sand storm” over the cloth.
Because How It’s Made has remained relatively unchanged over the years, watching episodes from 2004 aren’t all that different than watching the ones today. Even as technology and production cycles change rapidly around them, the producers continue on, showing us the surprising origin stories of very basic objects.
Regardless of what they’re making or when the episode aired, once you start watching it is hard to look away. That’s not just true of me, or of its fans—it’s true of Science Channel employees as well. During our interview, Mullin admitted that she was trying not to get distracted by the episode that was currently playing on her television. “They’re making nail clippers, and I have to say I am completely fascinated by how nail clippers are made, I keep looking over to see what step we’re on.” McDaid said that if How It’s Made is on during a meeting, nobody can focus. “Sometimes we have to turn the TV off because everybody gets distracted.” Regardless of how much technology and production change, mesmerizing machines will always be mesmerizing machines.