About the Author:
Paul Casebourne has spent a life time in service to the Materials Handling Storage and Distribution Industry with over 50 years in materials handling experience from the shop floor to running and operating businesses. He has worked in over 7,000 locations and handled over 20,000 business enquiry problems. In this personal sharing of his experience with you he means you as part of us, the people who provide an amazing facility without which the modern world ceases to function and is held in fine and delicate balance as the events of the early parts of the 21st century have reminded us all only too well. Author, engineer, installer, designer and manufacturer these are some of the fundamentals he shares with you. Please feel free to use and enjoy the ‘takeaways” Sign up here to receive this series in monthly instalment building up into a set of usable, practical help for modern warehousing for businesses in all stages of development.

Chapter 8:

How engineers and science have dealt with awkward shapes:

An informal case study of the egg and baking, cited as difficult to handle.

Going to work on an Egg

Please give a very warm welcome to Sir Isaac Newton (laws 2 and 3), he would like to remind you of the rules:

“Thank you everyone, it is lovely to be back, I think laws 2 and 3 will be particularly relevant to this where….

  1. The acceleration of an object depends on the mass of the object and the amount of force applied.
  2. Whenever one object exerts a force on another object, the second object exerts an equal and opposite on the first.

Therefore: 𝐹=𝑚𝑎 still applies as doubtless you will all pleased to hear, which means and put in very simple terms the velocity of an egg weighing around 60 gms,(a measurement system which was not around in my day) when dropped means that its equivalent weight doubles, the egg hits the ground with over a kilogram of force, but it takes about 2 kgs of pressure to crack an egg, my 2nd law then applies. Therefore were you to drop it the chances of it remaining in tacked are remote, worse still if it is in a basket, then my 3rd law occurs, which is really going to hurt, and thus the wise expression about not placing all your eggs in one basket and lets not get started on impulse-momentum, but it is convenient  in establishing these relationships.  This, therefore is the back drop for about 10,000 years of engineering which I finally unravelled only 1686 and fully explained as to why dropping eggs is a bad idea, it will, I predict, be 283 years before engineers really get to grips with how best to protect the egg.”

Thank you Sir Isaac, very enlightening.

Mysterious Philosophical Work Place Shapes proving the rules – for example…

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

This relates to the laws of probability, which are drowned in ‘Beautiful Minds’ algebraic arithmetic on the windows of many philosophy departments. According to Leonard Mlodinow who is both a physicist as well as a mathematician, there are 3 basic outcomes to “events”:-

  1. The probability that two events will both occur can never be greater than the probability that each will occur individually.
  2. If two possible events, A and B, are independent, then the probability that both A and B will occur is equal to the product of their individual probabilities.
  3. If an event can have a number of different and distinct possible outcomes, A, B, C, and so on, then the probability that either A or B will occur is equal to the sum of the individual probabilities of A and B, and the sum of the probabilities of all the possible outcomes (A, B, C, and so on) is 1 (that is, 100%).


  1. So you have 3 birds, one in your hand and two in a nearby bush, you shot the first one, the  remaining 2 flew away. So far so good, you still have one bird.

2)  1 dead bird 2 escapees, yes that still works the same way.

3)  You have one bird, but there were a surprise 50 more in said bush, they flew away too, the outcome is 100% the same.

Challenging the rule

Basically the bird in the hand should be the focus, however if you need more than one in your hand that requires tactical changes, for example you can catch the bird instead of killing it, repeat and breed from it. Now you have lots of birds all in a hen house and eggs too, and not in the less reliable, but nonetheless predictable bush. However rule 3 now applies.  This brings new problems, where are you going to keep your birds, you need to feed them and keep them free of disease.

You will probably receive a visit from the authorities asking you to keep the noise down and deal with neighbours complaints and start to wish you had just eaten it in the first place, so now you are back with rule one. Change is never as simple as it looks. Welcome to the world of business and materials handling in particular, since you are now an active participant in the food supply chain, you should perhaps now study rule two. In my head I change the word probability to possibility and now the rules start to flex, but there is still a long way to go.

    The question of the chicken or the egg.

    Manufacturing is besotted with forecasting, quantitive and volume data. I am sure the person who had the notion of chicken and egg did not solve either volume or order but quickly realised it was a valuable commodity for survival. Archaeological research and evidence suggests that apparently it took us 290,000 years to wake up to the fact that a hen and eggs were useful things. Since we had discovered fire some 300,000 years earlier I am surprised that nobody had thought of actually boiling one [an egg], since we had clearly been boiling each other prior to that. Evolution is a strange thing. 

    Back to the egg or the chicken, so which did come first? Well, clearly the chicken in this case because we only domesticated them about 10,000 years ago, but they had been pecking about for at least 48,000 years prior to this, apparently oblivious to their fate. But the egg can claim a lineage dating back a further 339.3m years prior. So you could be forgiven for believing the egg was the safest bet. Today there are over 3 times more hens on the planet than people. That’s a result! It’s also a lot of problems or opportunities, since an opportunity is simply an unsolved problem, otherwise Leonard Mlodinow would have probably been an engineer instead!

    As a person in engineering, given the problem: which came first the chicken or the egg, my answer to that is neither. I struggle to find a satisfactory mathematical outcome  to this problem.

    I mention this specifically because my whole life customers give me chicken and egg problems with a casual disregard for the consequences of the many processes where 1+1≠2. (safety factors for example)  Alarmingly I see a tsunami of consequences which results in a process of design work to circumnavigate disaster and improving the fortunes of the livestock and their children in the process. By the way, in my world, it is perfectly possible to have fractions of livestock or their offspring, Tesco have made it an art form. Eggs make great ingredients for cakes, just not in their shells. All of which keeps me occupied with rule one; “The probability that two events will both occur can never be greater than the probability that each will occur individually”.

    As we ease into rule one, does that really mean “Individually” or consequentially? since as a consequence or having my bird in the hand I now know there are a further two in the bush. Had I not gone out for the first bird I would have been blissfully unaware of the other two. I would call this “hands on” experience. You have to be in it to win it! Now I want the other two birds and both events are separate, but to make that work I needed to be hungry enough to go back for the other two, whilst being sustained by the first bird. I would call this success breeding success. Even although it may involve trial and error! In engineering we call this testing.

    So now Rule one is actually turning into a repeatable system, soon it will be automated and we won’t have one bird in the hand we will have 25bn in hand, abattoirs, food processing plants restaurants and supermarket shelves, so if you are statically the person who only buys 23.6 % of a chicken, you can DIY from the supermarket and /or of buy it ready cooked. The consequences of our actions, is how this has grown into one of the world largest industries with countless supporting infrastructures, including veterinary, flavours and advances in medicine which have helped with human health such as cancer killing proteins.

    I would suggest that 1+1≠2 is the formula of creativity. Since maths itself is a process one could argue that maths could be the chicken and the egg. Or maybe the God” question itself.

    Annoyingly, like Google, life seems to have to be a one” thing. But reality is never a one thing. My experience is there are at least 3 things and they rarely = 2. If it were otherwise I suspect we would be all in the Garden of Eden and there would be little point to this narrative .  Reality is about joining the dots up.

    I  have concluded that the answer to: Which came first is in fact:- Neither, because it was the result or consequence of a process. All my life I have always looked for processes and consequences to solve problems through awareness. Am I wrong? And is there an algebraic formula to expose solutions this way? I aught to be wrong because I am not a process engineer, or am I?  After all engineering itself is a process, isn’t it? So many questions and none of them have a straight answer? Worse still the answer varies depending upon who is asking it and that is no word of a lie, but it could be.

    It is important because consequences create more problems than they solve [thankfully or I would be out of a job]. Solving problems is a process. Can you simply express that algebraically speaking? Is there an awareness formula? or could one be simply written, or is algebra being aimed at retrospective forecasting. If so, that is a very sad application. Ukraine for example the consequences of massively broken processes, where forecasting arms requirements is hardly a solution, yet throughout history destruction is often the father and mother of progress, at least for someone or thing, just not for everyone. It strengthens in my mind the notion that 1+1≠2 combined with the probability that when two events both occur, they can never be greater than the probability that each event will occur individually. To control this we devised surveys because in business and particularly engineering we don’t like surprises. 

    Most of my life has been spent problem solving so I would like to talk about some of the more peculiar shapes I have been called upon to deal with. The philosophy that I draw upon most frequently is that of transferable skill sets, thus my preamble to this point. But not simply confined to engineering. After all your classroom only sets you on a path, gives you a map and a few labour saving ideas, but in the end it sets you up to be independent, think for yourself, yet still offers you team support if only you know where to look!

    Getting into shape with Baking and Eggs.

    For example, to move away from birds and into the wider countryside, if you want to creatively capture a landscape, best use a flat surface of a suitable material. Then paints? Okay, lets park paints. When you have your canvass and the beautiful scene captured frame it! Choose a location and hang it up. What just happened there ?

    1. Raw materials
    2. Parts
    3. Manufacturing
    4. Packed
    5. Packaged 
    6. Distributed 
    7. Stored

    Yes, Its a sad life for some of us! We just don’t see things in the way others do. If you asked me about the greatest inventions of all time as shining examples of detailed engineering my answer would be Otto Frederick Rohwedder and United Industrial Syndicate. The latter being the greatest thing since sliced bread which was finally marketed by the former in 1928, 41 years later and 4 patents and United industrial Syndicate finally came up with the modern day egg box! Yay! We’re back to eggs!

    There were 3 people noted on the patent: Walter H. Howarth, Gerald A. Snow and Harold A. Doughty. The interesting thing is the connection to engineering. What many people don’t realise is that the former jeweller (Rohwedder), not only sliced bread he wrapped it too.

    Why I like these two inventions so much is that they dealt with colossal  waste and damage, improved productivity, vastly improved handling and significantly cut production costs deep into the supply line including managing portion control. It took 63 years from the first egg box patent, (which is significantly faster than our ancestors learned to boil an egg {some still can’t}), 7 people and thousands of hours to perfect the egg box detail. Finally, and you can see this very day, on the soft pulp egg box the attention to detail which protects the egg, allows the cartons to be (automatically) stacked without damaging the eggs below and handled in bulk. Go take a look!  Not only did this device get all the eggs out of one basket, it handled each egg at a specific angle perfectly supported and aligned in a protective outer that kept the contents in perfect condition all the way from the hen to the kitchen with damage rates which were nothing short of miraculous. Today a pallet of eggs using these ideas handles getting on for 3000 eggs, that is over 69,000 eggs in one trailer, over 40 tonnes of eggs!  That’s  about about one and a half pence an egg to ship. 41 years on from sliced bread it was definitely the best thing since sliced bread which did exactly the same for the loaf as the egg carton did for safe egg distribution! However the size of the loaf and the cost of such an outer makes little sense to process in this way because most families don’t buy a dozen loaves at a time! (except to perform miracles). Out of my list of 7 items listed above these 2 inventions definitely nailed all the problems. That’s why food processing industry is a magnet for engineers. Baking and eggs must be the 2 oldest problems since time began. Haven’t we done well! 2 boiled eggs and 2 slices of bread are around 250 calories, that will usually keep you going until elevenses! Especially if you are a fork lift truck driver with a pallet truck as well to marshall and load 12 pallets of 1900 eggs in about an hour, of course with a slip sheet you can turn the vehicle round in 15 minutes! Otherwise at about 20 something eggs a basket or thereabouts its 2,000 trips to the hen house! I would like to rewrite the proverb as follows: A bird in the hand is a 10,000 year meal ticket, a global industry and energises 8 billion of us and it ain’t over yet.

    The whole crux of handling is our ability to get products into a manageable format.  The list is long and includes clothing, footwear, food, timber, construction materials, powders, granular materials, sugar for instance and of course fluids. Tooth paste for example, a brilliant concept for a one way journey. By the way, if you ever need to separate an egg yoke and white, crack open the egg, take an empty plastic water bottle and squeeze it, place the mouth of the bottle over the yoke and release the pressure on the bottle. Very satisfying, it leaves the yoke in tact,  industrial versions exist. The one thing they all have in common is the need for accessible clean storage, in locations free of contaminants, often in controlled atmospheres which makes handling the manufacturers worst nightmare. In food for example, you might say recycle process waters instead of sending them to sewage, and it can be  done too. However, if you are producing canned products it may be a week before you realise you have a problem by which time there are one million cans on shelves, that was actually the result of a case study.

    Dairy products in the raw are all tricky shapes to deal with, probably the worst. challenging circumstances develop specific processes to deal with them. If you can’t get an egg to stay still, you can’t handle it. The engineering that is in egg production processes is phenomenal  and includes conveyors, robots, printing, transport, plastics, pulp, forklifts, trolleys, indexing equipment, pallet manufacturing, plus a whole industry which revolves round cooking eggs. You have no idea of the vast investment there has been in the humble egg. The answer to which came first is neither! It was a process of evolution. However the shape of the unit of storage transformed the industry and the trading world.

    When looking into handling systems it is often useful to research how the industry has arrived at where it is to be able to see where it is going and what will work best to get it there.

    Pretty much everything finishes up on the road sooner or later, so size matters and is largely why everything is divisible by four, three or two.(even oil drums fit four to a pallet). The  most common types of ship are Bulk, Container and Ro-Ro ( in which I include ferries too) and unless they are fed from a special port their contents must be received or delivered by road (or rail).

    More sobering, without these basic units of capture they remain niche. Around the year 1900 when threshers first started to transform agriculture, one man (were he able to work straight through) could probably have produced the equivalent of a bag of grain, a 25 kg sack, that includes, cropping, stooking, threshing, bagging, storing and stacking, but not the horse and cart!

    If we  say 1 kg of flour makes 2 loaves its about 46 loaves of bread assuming a bit of process wastage, you then need to add the miller and the baker into that, plus the groom, the farmer and the trips to market, plus food for the horse(s). That’s about 7 loaves per head of resource by the time it’s on the table. A  modern combine crops and threshes 30 or more tonnes per hour! That is 60,000 loaves of bread, then there is the tractor driver, the  lorry driver the storage and miller, the baker and the retailer involved, most of the big bakeries are automated these days. But even divided by 20 people that is still 3,000 loaves per head. That is over 400% improvement in productivity.  That is one of the reasons we have an additional 6 billion people on the planet and why materials handling systems are so hugely integrated and extremely important. The visible benefits are fast food restaurants, restaurants, catering establishments popping up anywhere from carparks to wedding venues, seasides and mountains. 

    Literacy in 1900 stood at about 30%, today it’s 80%. In 1900, 600m people could read, today 6.4bn people that can read. That is 10 times more in 122 years. What is behind those figures for me is ink, paper and pulp, construction, I.T. mining, food production, health and of course a vibrant industrial base supported by unprecedented advances in materials handling equipment and power systems. For example under 5,000 cars were made globally in 1900, today that figure stands at nearly 67m. That is a 15000% increase and doesn’t include the vehicles already in circulation and use. RoRo ships can take 6000 vehicles in a sailing.  One person in over 444,000 people could afford a car in 1900, today the figure is one in 121. That is a breathtaking achievement. The notion that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer is simply hype. From under one hundred thousand millionaires out of two billion people in 1900, today there are approaching 60m. That equates one in 50,000 people were extremely wealthy. Today it has risen to one in 143 people per head of global population.  The gap between rich and poor is narrowing, not increasing. I would put this down to a number of things, but primarily it is down to engineering and specifically handling and transportation. Being able to deliver 69,000 eggs and 3,000 loaves of sliced bread, packed, is only possible because of the amount of handling, storage and transportation issues that have been resolved in the last 122 years and most of them in the last 50. Our food surpluses are simply vast, more than enough to feed everyone. Tins, packaging, smart ingredients and temperature controlled management are all instrumental in achieving these incredible figures. Don’t take me exactly on these figures but even if they are only half right it is still an amazing achievement. Building on them safely and introducing new micro power systems for our energy needs and making better use of smaller spaces will all inevitably bring further rewards.

    When you celebrate this with a glass of wine or beer, which you should, spare a thought to the bottling plants, glass making industries and logistics that makes it possible to sit and enjoy it 122 years on, in a location that was unsurvivable in 1900, 6,000 feet up an Alp and where at such a location there was no means of access or survival. The bird in the hand proverb has far reaching significance penetrating the very survival of our existence on the planet. If we can handle atoms and eggs, there are abundant opportunities. 

    Take Aways

    • There is always more than one thing and more than one way of doing that thing.
    • A bird in the hand assumes the birds in the bush are very poor odds to catch. A trained hawk reverses those odds. Better still domesticate the bird. Think outside the bush. 
    • Shape and size matters because the devil is always in the detail.
    • The law of probability only works for a set piece, change the rules and you change the outcome, by effectively moving the odds in your favour,  providing you prepare for the consequences. You won’t change the law though, you just find out how to build on it.
    • Laws only like a ‘one thing’ (So do Universities case in point Dissertations!))
    • Everything can be stabilised for handling and transport
    • Materials handling is a progressive industry with solutions building all the time for difficult products and situations
    • Seeing the whole process is significant in developing good quality packaging and economic transportation
    • Suitable containers are an essential part of mechanised transport internally and externally 
    • If not boxes then use trays for parts processing leading to packing and bulk transport
    • Feeding systems speed up collection and assembly processing