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Manufacturing—Past, Present, and Future, Part 1

Manufacturing—Past, Present, and Future, Part 1

By Bob Sproull

This is the first post in an exciting new series exploring the past, present, and future of manufacturing. We’ll cover its origins and history, its impact on the development of civilizations, what manufacturing looks like today, and how the future of manufacturing will likely evolve.

Defining the term within our scope

Given that manufacturing has contexts outside of many readers’ purview (such as the manufacture of body cells), let’s start with the relevant working definitions of the term, from Dictionary.com:

Manufacturing: To make or produce by hand or machinery, especially on a large scale.

To work up (material) into form for use: to manufacture cotton.

The infancy of manufacturing

Manufacturing has been with us for many years. In fact, it is as old as recorded civilization itself, with its roots in simple products like jewelry, clothing, furniture, farm equipment, and even weaponry. In its infancy, manufacturing was a local phenomenon with no complex concerns about inventory, distribution, or expanding into new markets. All of that was a figment in the minds of visionaries—a world yet to be discovered. Nascent manufacturing was primarily make-to-order, direct-to-customer, with no elements of mass production.

Early manufacturing systems were characterized by specialized craft skills, rather than the complex technologies that exist today. Several key characteristics were evident among most producers:

  • There was no formal manufacturing planning
  • Equipment was general purpose with virtually no capital expense
  • There were usually very low volumes of specialty products
  • The organizational structure was flat with small, decentralized manufacturing units owned and operated by entrepreneurs
  • The workforce was composed of skilled craftsmen performing multiple tasks
  • Few, if any, assembly lines were in operation, since the orders were always low volume (and they would have been rudimentary if they existed at all)

In the not-too-distant past, there was no mindset of disposability. When a product broke or stopped functioning, every effort was made to repair it. This stands in sharp contrast to today’s mindset, in which cheap watches, ball point pens, laptop computers, and lawnmowers are usually discarded when they stop working or become technologically outmoded. We can only wonder what our forebears would have thought of the concept of planned obsolescence.

The advent of mass production

Consumer demand and evolving markets were catalysts for changes in manufacturing. Orders for multiple items increased and these required a significant mindset change. New demands required new solutions. This brought about the advent of mass production, which dramatically changed the manufacturing landscape.

Competition between early manufacturers increased as consumers became aware of available products. More sophisticated concepts began to emerge, like quality control, on-time delivery, and diversification of product offerings. At the same time, marketing was becoming a more sophisticated discipline, which led to increasing demand for existing products, and for new products that could solve existing problems.

Fast forward a few years, and these concepts led to the development of perhaps the most monumental advancement in the history of manufacturing—the assembly line. On December 1, 1913, the Ford Motor Company installed the first moving assembly line for the mass production of an entire automobile. With the introduction of Ford’s moving assembly line, the cars moved instead of the assemblers. Workers built motors and transmissions on pulley-powered conveyor belts. This process was inspired by the continuous-flow production methods employed in canneries, breweries, and flour mills, as well as the disassembly of animal carcasses in Chicago’s meat-packing plants.

How mass production changed the world as we know it—and holds potential for even greater change!

Henry Ford’s innovation reduced the time it took to build a car from more than 12 hours to 2 hours and 30 minutes! More importantly, it reduced the costs of labor and production, which enabled the masses to own an automobile and forever changed transportation as we know it. It also made workers much more productive, which enabled Ford to double his workers’ wages! Ford’s original Model T revolutionized manufacturing and American civilization in the 20th century. Yet for all its transformative impacts on the history of manufacturing and Western civilization, the car only came in black!

Could we see an innovation with a similar impact on production time, worker productivity, and wages today? Could we see a technology shift in manufacturing that would have far-reaching implications for civilization? Think about this. These advancements were all the results of moving from craft production to assembly lines and mass manufacturing.

The mass production mindset changed manufacturing forever. The new norm for manufacturing from then on encompassed huge volumes of standard products, work planning, major changes in the approach to distribution, multi-level organizations, and complex systems.  With the emergence of these complex systems, our focus on how goods were manufactured changed forever. Economies of scale became the norm, which eventually led (in part) to globalization. Manufacturing has evolved from individual craftspeople competing in isolated local markets to competition and cooperation between nations!

Coming in the next post

In the next post, we will move on from the history to the present of manufacturing. We will explore milestone advancements including Material Requirement Planning (MRP), Manufacturing Resource Planning (MRP II), and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), with a special focus on ERP systems.

Until next time.

Bob Sproull

Bob Sproull

About the author

Bob Sproull has helped businesses across the manufacturing spectrum improve their operations for more than 40 years.

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