As famous engineer Henry Petroski once said, "successful engineering is all about understanding how things break or fail.”
While a poorly-made machine can be a huge headache for engineers and consumers alike, the smooth gliding of materials on a well-made device makes all the hard work worth it.
Here are a few mesmerizing examples of mechanical engineering machines that show the fruits of years of failure that eventually led to success.
1. The manufacture of glass bottles
Glass bottles are made while they are still glowing with heat, making the process look like something out of the lava factory scene in Star Wars Episode II.
What's really happening is that, typically, a glass mixture is melted in a furnace at 2730 degrees Fahrenheit over the course of a day.
As can be seen in the video above, the shape is molded via a press and blow. This impressive process is how most of our everyday bottles and jars are made.
For the cooling of the bottles, heat is carefully controlled through a process called annealing. This ensures the bottles don't have any thermal shock from rapidly cooling temperatures.
2. Metal compression test
One of the most mesmerizing sights a mechanical engineer can have the fortune of witnessing is that of the compression of metal. A modern hydraulic press can bend and shape metal as if it were paper.
This folding metal bar, folded by a hydraulic press, doesn't buckle due to the fact that both ends of the bar are supported.
The bar folds in the middle first as the center is the farthest point away from the pressure being exerted at both ends. The press makes incredibly easy work of the strong material.
3. A Leonardo da Vinci-inspired monowheel
The battery-powered monowheel has recently been popularized in the urban mobility space. As far back as 1930 however, people were zipping around in the Dynasphere, a monowheel vehicle that was inspired by a Leonardo da Vinci design.
The Dynasphere, a 1930 monowheel vehicle inspired by a Leonardo da Vinci sketch from r/mechanical_gifs
The machine, which was created by inventor Dr. J. H. Purves, included a cabin within the circumference of the wheel for the driver and passenger to sit in.
While it didn't take over the automotive industry in quite the manner that Purves had hoped, it is a sight to behold when in motion.
4. Cutting metal with water
As in the video below, aside from simply cutting metal, it can allow designers to make incredible patterns.
As HowStuffWorks points out, low-pressure water jets were first developed in California for gold mining.
Now, the (extremely) high-pressure machines typically pump water out at an eye-watering 20,000 and 55,000 pounds per square inch (PSI). Water is then forced through a 0.010" to 0.015" diameter hole in a jewel to allow the precision cutting.
5. A hypnotic hypoid
A hypoid is a type of spiral bevel gear. The rotating gears are typically used in a vehicle differential — a device that allows an engine's torque to be split two ways.
The helical design allows the gears to produce less vibration and noise than conventional straight-cut gears with straight teeth. It also makes them entrancing to look at.
6. Mattresses pressed like pancakes
Have you ever had a rolled mattress delivered to your home? Compressing them to a deliverable size takes a very powerful compressing machine — like the one shown in the video below.
The mattress is then rolled and pressed before being wrapped and ready to send.
As one poster in this Reddit thread put it, "I hope the memory foam doesn't remember this part of its life."
7. A spring-making machine
This complex machine has only one purpose: manufacturing springs of different sizes.
Typically a coiler machine, which can roll out over a thousand springs per hour, is used.
8. Mounting a Swiss watch
A lot of the above processes are carried out in a factory by machines. Some contraptions are simply too precise to be reliably manufactured at scale on a factory floor.
Take for example, the mounting of a balance wheel and bridge onto a Swiss watch.
The pliers are made of wood to prevent from scratching any of the moving parts used in the incredibly intricate trade of horology. Horology, the art of watchmaking, allows for creativity at the same time as requiring extreme precision.
Much like research science, engineers gradually build on pre-existing knowledge and processes. This means that, in a manner that reflects the complexity of the machines they build, the work of mechanical engineers is part of an intricate web of knowledge that makes the world move.
As writer Robert A. Heinlein succinctly described it, “one man’s 'magic' is another man’s engineering. 'Supernatural' is a null word.”