80/20 Aluminum: What’s In a Name?

It goes by several different terms: T-slot structural framing, T-slotted aluminum extrusions, 80/20 T-slot aluminum building system, and 80/20 framing, among others. The various descriptors used in these terms are fairly straightforward and self-explanatory. Individually we know what aluminum is, not to mention extrusions, systems, T-slot, and framing. But what does 80/20 have to do with any of these?

Believe it or not, there is an answer to that question. And thereby hangs a tale.

80/20 and Genericization

The term 80/20 aluminum (and variations thereof) presents an instance of “genericization.” Also called a generic trademark or proprietary eponym, a term like “80/20 aluminum” is an example of a trademark or brand name that, because of its popularity or significance, has become the generic term for, or synonymous with, a general class of product or service (often, though not always, against the intentions of the trademark’s owner).

Other well-known examples of such generic trademarks include the noun Kleenex (for “paper tissue”), the verb Google (for “search the web”), Taser (for any incapacitating weapon that uses electroshock), and Xerox (as noun and verb for “photocopy”). In the same way, 80/20 aluminum refers to the products made by 80/20® Inc., the originator and manufacturer of a popular modular T-slot aluminum building system, which they describe as “The Industrial Erector Set®.”

Thus, through the process of genericization, 80/20 aluminum may also refer to any modular fabrication system, produced by any manufacturer, that uses T-slot extruded aluminum.

Which begs the question: Why did the originating manufacturer name their company “80/20” in the first place?

The 80/20 Rule (or the Pareto Principle)

Vilfredo Pareto
Vilfredo Pareto

According to their company literature, the name of 80/20, Inc. was inspired by the work of Vilfredo Pareto (1843–1923), an Italian engineer, sociologist, economist, political scientist, and philosopher. In his first work, Cours d’économie politique (1896), Pareto showed that approximately 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. Other names for this principle are the law of the vital few and the principle of factor sparsity.

The 80/20 concept was further developed by management consultant Joseph Juran in the context of quality control, where he observed that for many outcomes roughly 80% of consequences derive from 20% of the causes.

The Rule has found broad application in other fields as well. For example, it has been observed that in retail, 80% of complaints to a company come from 20% of its customers. In nature, among birdwatchers, 80% of the birds that are seen belong to just 20% of the species identified. In the realm of U.S. taxation, the top 20% of earners pay roughly 80% of Federal income tax. Occupational health and safety professionals use the Pareto principle to prioritize hazard assessment by assuming that 20% of the hazards will account for 80% of the injuries. In computer science, 80% of a software project can be written in 20% of the total allocated time; while conversely the hardest 20% of the code takes 80% of the time. And so on and so forth.

80/20 Rule ExampleSimilarly, as a business tool, the 80/20 Rule has proved invaluable in the observation that 80% of a firm’s results come from 20% of its efforts. This has direct application in management, hiring, supply chain, profitability, planning, and other aspects of business success.

You may even discover—as you work on a project with our easy-to-assemble extruded aluminum inch profiles—that the 80/20 rule applies to you as well: 80% of the project will probably be completed in 20% of the time you’ve allocated to it!