39 Cheap, Mass-Produced Items That Are Stupendously Well Engineered, According To Folks In This Online Thread


I fondly remember George Carlin giving a 5-minute monologue as part of his stand-up act talking about stuff. And I will always remember his iconic quote about it: “have you ever noticed how everyone else’s stuff is [crap] and all your [crap] is stuff?”

And when you think about it, it’s true. And on several levels. Not only because you care about your stuff more than you do about others’ but also because some stuff can really be bad. But it can be seemingly bad but surprisingly good.

This is what Reddit has been talking about lately—the things that are cheap, mass-produced, and seemingly crap, but absolutely stupendously well designed and engineered.

The now-viral AskReddit post found its way under our radar, so there you have it, the best responses of stuff that isn’t crap, though it costs as much. Scroll down, check it out, vote, comment, all that jazz.

More Info: Reddit

#1 The (Corrugated) Fiberboard Box

throwaway-boxer said:
The humble corrugated cardboard box.

It's lightweight, strong, splash resistant, somewhat padded, doesn't break down in heat/cold, scratch resistant, recyclable, biodegradeable and able to be assembled cheaply into any size.

The basic design has existed for over 150 years. The retail shipping industry runs on cardboard boxes.

XYZ2ABC replied:
The Corrugated Fiberboard Association of America would like to remind you that it’s the humble Corrugated Fiberboard box you’re referring to; a cardboard box is what your shoes come in.

Image credits: throwaway-boxer

#2 Toilets

ohz0pants said:
Toilets. They use nothing more than gravity to reliably flush. Doesn't use power at all.

i-d-p replied:
And if you’ve ever used a poorly engineered toilet, you really learn to appreciate the well engineered ones.

Image credits: ohz0pants

#3 Ballpoint Pens

Raptorscars said:
The ballpoint pen, clearly

Calphrick replied:
Give credit to the inventor, Laszlo Biro. He escaped the Nazis, invented the pen, then got ripped off and never made money.

Image credits: Raptorscars

#4 Zippers

wanderingsoul825 said:
The zipper. It’s a very cheap mechanism that secures objects in a very neat fashion. No wonder it’s used in most objects that need to be opened and closed such as luggage and jackets.

DonatellaVerpsyche replied:
Sewing person here adding: not all zippers are created equal. There is a big difference in quality. Those zippers in the top of a purse or a great jacket that just move smoothly like butter: yep, great quality. The cheap ones are the ones that will drive you nuts and get stuck. I always get the best quality for what I’m making. Huge difference. And those top quality zippers are also a lot more expensive, like $5-7/ each. (Vs Very roughly, a cheaper zipper can go for like $0.50-2.50/ ea.)

Added fun fact that includes zippers: (often) the most expensive part of a handbag is the hardware and this includes all the zippers.

Image credits: wanderingsoul825

#5 Lighters

LefterisLegend said:
The lighter. Spontaneously ignite fire basically whenever you want.

raitalin replied:
Specifically, Bic lighters are incredibly reliable. You can find one on the ground that's been outside for months and they still work. Cheaper disposables break in a million ways and more expensive refillable lighters will leave you disappointed if you store them, but you can always keep a Bic handy and know it'll work when you need it.

Image credits: LefterisLegend

#6 Screws

Paranomorte said:
Screws, can you imagine what would happen if all the screws suddenly disappeared from world? Everything would fall apart

FarmerMKultra replied:
We would be screwed.

Dahhhkness replied:
Tool puns, everyone, you know the drill.

ihlaking replied:
> "you know the drill."
I mean, I know a bit.

UndercoverFBIAgent9 replied:
Time to ratchet up the laughter.

RiverShenismydad replied:
Y'all are nuts.

teeebax replied:
This is absolutely riveting.

Shonnyboy500 replied:
I find it boring.

olioli86 replied:
Too plane for you I guess.

BreakfastBright1999 replied:
Nah, just hammered.

Image credits: Paranomorte

#7 Light-Emitting Diodes Or Leds

notanotherbreach said:
LEDs. Cheap diodes. Even colours. Ok, I dislike the blue ones but tint them and you get warm white.

Tactical_Moonstone replied:
Blue LEDs are a Nobel Prize-winning invention for how revolutionary they have been in lighting.

Image credits: notanotherbreach

#8 Batteries

HuntertheGoose said:
Batteries are marvels of engineering packed tightly into a minuscule canister, even AA batteries are incredibly sophisticated internally.

Toboloroner replied:
I saw a video of someone take apart a lithium energizer battery the other day - and it looks like cotton balls and folded foil just all jammed together.

Like, someone figured out how to harness so much energy into that thing???

It's me admitting that I can barely tie my shoes, and here are people just casually throwing atoms together to make my car go zoom.

Image credits: HuntertheGoose

#9 Zip Ties

larryb78 said:
Zip ties. Such a simple piece of plastic but so versatile. I have one of the old fashioned chain link fences, some of the fasteners on the middle poles broke and in high winds the fence was swaying like crazy. A half dozen zip ties on the three posts and it doesn’t budge and nobody even knows they’re there.

loverlyone replied:
My son rebuilt the front of his car with them time and again. He’s a genius with a zip tie. With not hitting the car in front of him, not so much.

Image credits: larryb78

#10 LEGO Building Blocks

Torvaun said:
LEGO. When's the last time you got two bricks that didn't fit, or that were loose?

DneSokas replied:
TBF LEGO is actually quite expensive as far as toys go, but IIRC their manufacturing tolerance is literally tighter than some components used by NASA and in theory the first ever brick manufactured would work with one manufactured today.

HoraceBenbow replied:
> "in theory the first ever brick manufactured would work with one manufactured today."

Can confirm. My son inherited some of his grandfather's bricks from the 1960s. They fit today's bricks perfectly.

Image credits: Torvaun

#11 Matches

the27thQuestioner said:

SultanOfSwave replied:
Matches are underappreciated because people don't really understand how complex a match and striker are.

From the Encyclopedia Britannica....

"The head of a match uses antimony trisulfide for fuel. Potassium chlorate helps that fuel burn and is basically the key to ignition, while ammonium phosphate prevents the match from smoking too much when it's extinguished. Wax helps the flame travel down the matchstick and glue holds all the stuff together. The dye-- well, that just makes it look pretty. On the striking surface, there's powdered glass for friction and red phosphorus to ignite the flame.

Now, the fun stuff-- striking a match against the powdered glass on the matchbox creates friction. Heat from this friction converts the red phosphorus into white phosphorus. That white phosphorus is extremely volatile and reacts with oxygen in the air, causing it to ignite. All this heat ignites the potassium chlorate, creating the flame you see here.

Oxidizers, like potassium chlorate, help fuels burn by giving them more oxygen. This oxygen combines with antimony trisulfide to produce a long-lasting flame so you have enough time to light a candle. The whole thing is coated with paraffin wax, which helps the flame travel down the match. Just don't burn the house down.

As antimony oxidizes, sulfur oxides form, creating that burnt-match scent. The smoke you're seeing is actually tiny unburned particles resulting from an incomplete combustion. Individually, they're a little bit too small to see but grouped together, they form smoke. There's also some water vapor in there.

By the way, all the stuff that we're explaining in 90 seconds, it all happens within tenths of a second. Chemistry's fast."

Image credits: the27thQuestioner

#12 Road Reflectors

OurLadyOfWalsingham said:
Road reflectors. Countless lives saved.

Rit_Zien replied:
Similarly, rumble strips. On the shoulders and in the center. I'm sure they've saved my Dad's life many times over.

Image credits: OurLadyOfWalsingham

#13 Metal Pencil Sharpeners

-This-Whomps- said:
Metal pencil sharpeners (the manual kind, not electric).

Don't buy the plastic ones in the school supply section. Go to the art section. Those metal sharpeners are CHOICE.

normopathy replied:
I have a blackwing two-stage sharpener, I could do surgery with a pencil sharpened with it.

nether_wallop replied:
Please don't.

Image credits: -This-Whomps-

#14 Glass

Yoink_Tactics said:
Glass bottles. Let's melt this rock into a clear, brittle material and turn it into what? Windows? Decorations? Screens? No, we're making pressure vessels, baby!

DisownedByMother replied:
Glass in general. There is a Museum of Glass in Corning NY. It's pretty interesting and there are some very old pieces there with information on some of the ancient glass making techniques.

Image credits: Yoink_Tactics

#15 Insulated (+ Thermal) Mugs

Much_Committee_9355 said:
Those thermic isolated cups you see construction workers drinking from, you can’t say Stanley or Yeti is just junk after trying it out.

MaxDamage1 replied:
I bought the Stanley granpa-going-fishing thermos. If you follow the instructions, it's ungodly how well it works. I actually started using their method with my cold yeti can thingy and it's amazing.

For those unfamiliar with how to use a thermos properly, you fill the thermos with boiling water for about 15 minutes, dump that water out, and then put in your coffee/tea. By preheating your thermos, it will keep that drink hotter than hell for hours beyond the already long heat containment you get using a room temp thermos. If you fill a can with water, freeze it, and put it in your yeti can cooler for a bit before you put your drink in it, it will extend its cooling abilities too.

Secondary fun fact: you can also use a thermos as a slow cooker. I'd preheat my thermos, put my stew ingredients in a pan and bring it to a boil, dump it all into my thermos, and leave it in my lunch box for the 5-6 hours until lunch. It's still steaming hot and all the ingredients have cooked down. It even worked with those ultra tough beef stew chunks and raw barley. Both were soft and slow cooked to perfection.

Image credits: Much_Committee_9355

#16 Disposable Diapers

As a new parent... diapers. Disposable diapers in particular.

Imagine being told as an engineer, you need to design a device to contain the vilest, grossest materials known to man. Both liquids and goopy solids. This device must have 3 tight seals against a constantly moving and wiggling life form of inconsistent size. Said life form has notoriously delicate skin, so the materials you can use are drastically limited. It must be able to be removed and installed in seconds by amateurs running on approximately 14 minutes of sleep...

... and it has to cost about 30 cents a unit.

Image credits: StarManta

#17 CPUs

The_Gene_Genie replied:
Computer processors, they're rocks we tricked into thinking.

waywardclip replied:
Little [munchkins] keep asking me to prove I'm not a robot.

Image credits: The_Gene_Genie

#18 Red Bricks

XG2L5TM3WK said:
A red brick

DjangoVanTango replied:
Great Answer. There’s a great book called At Home by Bill Bryson which explains the history behind the way we live in our homes. Things like why it’s salt and pepper on our tables, why forks have four tines (a word I learned on the book) m and it includes a whole chapter (admittedly not the highlight of the book) on the history of bricks and how the humble brick literally shaped the way we lived from building our houses to the manufacturing process. The sort of thing that is both utterly fascinating and painfully dull at the same time.

Image credits: XG2L5TM3WK

#19 Stainless Steel Cutlery

Tough question, I'd say stainless steel cutlery.

How many other things in life are used almost every day, then machine washed, thrown haphazardly into a drawer & regularly survive in a working condition for much more than a century.

Image credits: ramriot

#20 The Wonderbar

Reaganson said:
The Wonderbar. It’s a crowbar.

DaveTheRave1nonly replied:
Yes! I use them all the time. Combined with a hammer, most precisely destructive handheld piece of metal you could ask for.

ButternutSasquatch replied:
The Wonder bra. Provides equally important leverage.

#21 Tarps

Tarps. A million tasks for them; they're incredibly versatile. Make a shelter, make a floor, make a carriage vessel, make a weather-proof housing for firewood or anything outdoors you want protected. Use it at a picnic; it's better than a blanket on the ground. Because of the threading they're still mostly effective even when a tear develops. And because of that same threading they can distribute weight and hold up against snow and rain buildup. Then you can just take it down, spray it with a hose if needed; it's good as new. Fold it up to a compact form, and toss it in a corner until you need it next. You are never far from a store or gas station that sells them for cheap. Always keep one in your trunk.

Image credits: Dangercakes13

#22 Wooden Clothes Pins And Pegs

HermitAndHound said:
Clothespins/-pegs, the wooden ones. People keep on trying to find some other way to do the job but never come up with something this durable and reliable.

carl84 replied:
The missus keeps buying plastic ones which degrade in the sun and shatter left, right, and centre all over the garden

Image credits: HermitAndHound

#23 Takeout Containers

Those containers used to store Chinese Food. They are durable, compact, keep the food hot, and don't really leak. They also collapse into a plate if you choose too. My favorite thing might be they don't take up much space in the rubbish bin either. Great product, and must cost less than a cent.

Image credits: ooo-ooo-oooyea

#24 Plungers

CrassChris76 said:

gsfgf replied:
And make sure you have the right kind. The red ones are for flat drains like sinks and tubs. The black one with the extra bit is for the [poopier] because it can actually get a seal.

#25 Intermodal Shipping Containers, I.e. Connex Boxes

The intermodal shipping container, a/k/a the Connex box. There are millions of the damned things all over the world, in use every single day. They are stackable, can be locked together, attach readily to ships, truck trailer frames, and rail cars, and can bear enormous loads.

The cost of their manufacture compared to their economic use value over their useful lives is next to nothing.

Image credits: MrBarraclough

#26 Hard Disk Drives

BL1860B said:
Hard drives. F*****g spinning glass disks that hold terabytes of data.

implicitpharmakoi replied:
Yeah, this is the one where I really think "they engineered that to hell ". The heads fly microns above the platters on a cushion of air (in newer drives, helium). The precision of the voice coils in aligning the heads. The dsp circuitry to process the signal that should be noise. And modern hard disks have to warm the area they write with a laser so it'll hold the magnetic charge. They spin for years, and are surprisingly fast.

Absolutely incredible.

Image credits: BL1860B

#27 Hinges

TriggeredSnake said:
Hinges! I had to [do] a study on them for my engineering class.

MagnusBruce replied:
I bet that bit of work opened some doors for you.

GreatPlagiarist replied:
I always get a laugh when you swing by.

[But in all seriousness...]
DonatellaVerpsyche replied:
Are we talking only metal hinges or are we talking bookbinding / box hinges, like the 2 hinges holding a 3 ring binder together? I did a massive project of recycling 3 ring binders and made all my own fabric and leather hinges. FASCINATING STUFF! How flexible/ not flexible the fabric had to be +how much glue to both create and hold the shape of the binder while letting it open completely like a plastic hinge. It was honestly fascinating nerdy stuff. I have a whole new appreciation for hinges (the wrap around and displacement of the main panels).

Image credits: TriggeredSnake

#28 Velcro

Hugh_JaRod said:

Pinkbeans1 replied:
This made my kids’ shoes so much easier to deal with!

Of course, Dad (Grandpa) insisted on teaching them to tie shoelaces anyway. My kids were tying everyone else’s shoelaces for them in kindergarten.

Image credits: Hugh_JaRod

#29 Mechanical Pencils And Their Leads

randomreuben said:
Mechanical pencils and their leads. Consistent size of the most fragile thing you’ve ever seen, shipped all over the world.

Mizar97 replied:
Graphite is a lot easier on cutting tools than steel, I'm betting the machinery that makes the graphite sticks requires very little maintenance.

#30 Transistors

wet-paint said:
The transistor.

chriswaco replied:
I remember how amazed we were in 1985 to see a chip with 68,000 transistors. Now they’re at 68 billion.

giritrobbins replied:
My favorite part was in school my professor talking about how they used to do the layouts on transparencies by hand.

Or how during Apollo the guidance aspect of the program was buying up a significant portion of the national production capacity of transistors.

Image credits: wet-paint

#31 Manual Can Openers

Anonymous said:
Manual can opener.

CrossXFir3 replied:
Which came out like a hundred years after the can. What a bitch it must've been eating canned food.

Pseudonymico replied:
Well it would’ve been pretty weird if it was the other way round.

dont_disturb_the_cat replied:
Alternatively, pop-top cans. Who needs a can opener when you can break your thumbnail and open your cat food and alphabet soup without them?

Image credits: anon

#32 Rubber Bands

karmicbreath said:
Rubber bands.

thehogdog replied:
Stretch one over a tough to unscrew screw so you dont strip the screw head.

twoduvs replied:
How does this help?

InShortSight replied:
Putting the rubber between the metal of the screw and the screwdriver can increase traction and make tougher screws come easier.

Image credits: karmicbreath

#33 Ceiling Fans

FadeToOne said:
Not exactly cheap, but I'm impressed that I can have a ceiling fan run on high for 15 years straight and not have it explode on me.

No-Confusion1544 replied:
I seriously startled myself when I realized the only time my ceiling fan had been off since I moved in was when the power went out.

Autumn_Sweater replied:
You should turn it off to clean it once in a while. It gets sticky dust on it.

einulfr replied:
And to switch direction for summer/winter.

'Winter' mode is also useful in the summer if you have a second floor and open all of the upstairs windows as it will help push the heat out. I do this for the evenings, then shut the windows early in the morning and flip the fan back to normal.

Image credits: FadeToOne

#34 Carabiners

SuperFerno317 said:
Carabiners, cheap, easy to use, super useful for just about anything, and the higher grade ones (30-ish USD) can hold up a truck. What else needs to be said?

samx3i replied:
> "super useful for just about anything"
Like what? I'm genuinely baffled as to what they're for but I see them sold everywhere.

SuperFerno317 replied:
They’re essentially used for clipping two objects together securely while still being simple to unclip. They can be used for things as minor as connecting your water bottle to a backpack or connecting a dog leash to their harness to more critical things such as ensuring that a construction worker doesn’t fall off a 200 foot skyscraper or securing a hot air balloon to the ground.

#35 Paper Clips

LucyVialli said:
Paper clip.

aMiracleAtJordanHare replied:
My industrial design professors said the paper clip may be the most perfectly-designed product in existence.

Image credits: LucyVialli

#36 Ball Bearings

noping_dafuq_out said:
Ball bearings.

Sullypants1 replied:
Even the cheapest ball bearings with the loosest tolerances are still made in the 10~50 micron range of tolerance. It only gets better from there. (Abec spec anyways).

When I say ‘ball bearings” I’m loosely referring to the races and rolling elements of any roller element bearing. (ball, taper, needle, cylinder , etc, two races, one race no race!, etc).

Image credits: noping_dafuq_out

#37 Soda Or Beer Cans

Die_woofer said:
Soda/beer cans. The design has existed for decades with few changes.

It’s a way of using a relatively small amount of cheap metal to withstand the pressure of carbonated beverages with a reliable opening mechanism.

During pandemic I also noticed that some companies stopped using thicker material on the upper ‘ridge’ of the can, probably due to supply shortages. They instead used a sort of stepped system that appeared to be almost as strong.

dmukya replied:
Every few years you will see the can design change as they find additional areas to reduce the use of aluminum. You can still find newly manufactured cans in the old designs in some of the more remote areas with less demand, like Hawaii. It's cheaper to create and fill cans on the island than import them, but the payback from updating to the newest can forming machines isn't quite there for the volume of cans they manufacture. So they get hand me downs and cast offs.

Image credits: Die_woofer

#38 Doorknobs And Locks

EIephants said:
A doorknob and a lock. Not that they don’t have their flaws, but I’d have a hard time making something that works that reliably that frequently.

Arch____Stanton replied:
I install them by the thousand over the last decade+.

The build and material quality has consistently been getting worse. There is a noticeable difference between a door knob made 15 years ago and one made recently (Chinese efficiency).

At one point they were being shipped with screws with little to no metal content. They lasted about a month before switching back up one step to some metal content.

The knobs themselves are so cheap they will dent when dropped on carpet.

So I would say though the system design has remained adequate the knobs and deadbolts have seriously declined in quality.

Image credits: EIephants

#39 Injection Mold Products

lallen said:
Injection molded stuff like plastic ball valves. Stuff we don't think about, but is amazingly good and cheap.

SuperHuman64 replied:
We actually make those at work. They are very simple. There are several EPDM o-rings used, along with polyethylene seats for the balls. Although they are for use with water, they hold up easily under 80psi of air used in testing.

Image credits: lallen

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