It's a good bet that few people spend their days contemplating toilets, either the considerable virtues they possess or the finer points of their design. Toilets are, after all, ubiquitous and ostensibly simple devices. But the modern loo deserves respect; for sophistication, it may not match, say, CERN's Large Hadron Collider. But for all its humility, it's a serious engineering feat.

That, anyway, is the opinion held by Jim McHale, a Ph.D. chemist by training who has made a career in the toilet industry. McHale's job is to ensure that his company's toilets have the most advanced technology possible while keeping an eye on, if you will, the bottom line. You may not have known such careers even existed. But now that you're, um, privy to this information, can you think of a more important way to earn a living?

Universities, diamonds, and bathroom appliances

As senior director of ceramics engineering and product development at American Standard Brands in Piscataway, New Jersey, McHale (pictured left) is responsible for keeping the company's toilet technology on the cutting edge. His charge, he says, for the one product you'd rather not have stolen from your house.

"I make toilets," he tells people who ask his occupation. More formally, the 40-year-old McHale is an "engineering leader," leading a team of 65 engineers and scientists in three countries designing and improving toilets and other vital fixtures, such as urinals, bidets, and lavatories.

While pursuing a bachelor's degree and a Ph.D. in solid state and inorganic chemistry at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, McHale didn't picture himself working in the toilet industry. He was planning, rather, to become a professor, "because that was all I knew," he recalls. "I had no idea what it was like in industry." Then, during a postdoc at Princeton University, he collaborated with a scientist from Alcoa Inc., the world's leading manufacturer of aluminum products whose U.S. headquarters are in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and decided that industry was a good match.

His first job was with GE Superabrasives, part of the General Electric Company, in Worthington, Ohio, just outside Columbus. The position allowed him to "really learn how science and technology are applied to industry," he says. "In graduate school and postdoctoral work, one learns how to think rigorously and apply this rigor to scientific pursuits, but this does not guarantee success in industry."

McHale worked in GE's diamond division for 4 years. Later, he became manager of polycrystalline engineering, leading a team of scientists and engineers developing ceramic composites containing diamond and cubic boron nitride. His experience at GE "was in some ways even more valuable than my Ph.D.," he says. He learned that "You can be the greatest scientist in the world, but if you don't understand the business you are in and how science and technology can be used to improve the bottom line, you won't get very far. Companies hire scientists and engineers to make more money. Good scientists and engineers in business never lose sight of this."

In 2004, McHale joined American Standard as director of research and development, a new position designed to bring more innovation to their bath and kitchen products. "I started with a team of three Ph.D. engineers and over time added two Ph.D. materials scientists, two M.S. engineers, one B.S. ceramics engineer, and one B.S. microbiologist." Within 2 years, he was promoted to the head of ceramics engineering, for which today he is responsible for all the development and manufacture of toilets and other ceramic fixtures.

Toilet science

Few people consider the familiar toilet the "modern marvel" McHale sees when he looks at it, yet "there's a lot of technology in it." Making a toilet, he says, is "really quite an interesting engineering challenge."

It's also an interdisciplinary challenge. First, there's physics, including fluid dynamics and flow optimization. Then there's chemistry and materials science: Understanding the properties of the clay used to manufacture a toilet, McHale says, is vital. Then there's statistics: Every element of the toilet's geometry and engineering must be analyzed statistically to ensure that it will function reliably.

A commode-related career

For students and mid-career professionals interested in commode-related careers, McHale recommends studying fluid dynamics and mechanical engineering, learning software used for industrial design such as Pro/Engineer CAD, and having a basic understanding of the science of ceramics. He emphasizes, however, that when hiring he doesn’t seek those with specific experience in the ceramics industry. Instead, McHale says he looks for candidates at any degree level with a strong background in the fundamentals of science and engineering--especially basic physics--interpersonal skills, "broad industrial experience, and a proven track record of being able to apply their fundamental knowledge to improve a business."

Today's toilet engineers are also, in a sense, environmental scientists. "Because the demands for water usage in the U.S. are going to change in the next 5 years, it is likely that toilets will be required to use less water than they use now," McHale says. Toilets using 20% less water than today's norm--6.06 liters per flush--are already on the market.

Biology, too, factors in to modern toilet design. Recently, McHale launched a microbiology laboratory to develop a cost-effective antimicrobial agent that could be incorporated into a toilet's glaze without causing environmental problems. It had to work in concert with the clay the toilet was made of and survive the high temperatures of the kilns that fire the toilets during the manufacturing process. It also had to function as part of wastewater-processing systems in which bacteria play a crucial role.

McHale and his team discovered that a mixture of silver and zinc, concentrated on the surface of the glaze in a certain manner, would produce the desired effect, safely. "Inorganic antimicrobials like silver and zinc are widely viewed as the safest and most natural method of controlling bacterial growth on surfaces," he says. Because it works on the ceramic surface and leaches very slowly, it doesn't cause problems downstream.

McHale has also used his knowledge and skill to streamline testing and operations processes. For example, he devised a cheaper, simpler, more effective method of examining the geometry of water pathways within a toilet. Prior to his innovation, the only way the company was able to understand flushing patterns was to take a model of a toilet, fill it with silicon rubber ,and then break the toilet open to examine the casting they had made out of the rubber. "I looked at that and said, 'That looks like the most ineffective method I've ever seen for trying to do that.' " So he borrowed a CT scanner from a doctor's office to look inside the toilet without smashing it. "Nobody thought it would work at first," McHale says--but it did. They were able to measure "down to a tenth of a millimeter to make sure everything was exactly the way it should be compared to the CAD files it started with."

Driving change

McHale enjoys "interaction with the team," which is, he says, "like playing the role of coach." His organization is made up mostly of engineers, but, he says, "I would prefer to hire physicists and chemists," especially for positions involving project management and data analysis. Science, he says, let's "you learn how to think rigorously, and you learn how to make good assessments." He currently has two Ph.D.-level scientists on his staff and open positions for three more.

"I don't do a lot of pure chemistry anymore, but the kind of thinking I learned in getting my Ph.D. and doing my postdoc work, I use all the time," McHale says. Scientists are "people who can drive change."

Photo (top): Courtesy, Jim McHale

Alaina G. Levine is a speaker, writer, performer, and public relations strategist, who has authored over 50 articles, which have appeared in national, regional, and local publications, and two newspaper columns.

Alaina G. Levine is a science writer based in Tucson, AZ.
10.1126/science.caredit.a0800157