A brief history of manufacturing

2013-08-02 2 min read

    Working on Makers Alley, I’ve spent a fair amount thinking about the evolution of manufacturing and wanted to share an extremely condensed history.

    For most of human history, people either made what they needed on their own or traded with a local craftsman. Over time, this led to a specialization in skills and also the rise of the apprenticeship model. Since trade was mostly local, it was difficult to build a large business and most businesses were family run with parents passing down skills to their children.

    This practice remained consistent until a couple of hundred years ago when water and steam power starting taking hold. For the first time, work could be done independently of human labor and started the trend of specialized machines replacing specialized people. The increase in machine efficiency and the reduced skill of workers led to drops in the cost of labor and cheaper products.

    The next major shift occurred when electricity became prevalent. This allowed factories to be built anywhere power was available and the locations were now chosen based on the price of labor and the cost of shopping. Thus, many factories ended up being built near cities with harbors and railroads.

    At this point, globalization was still in its infancy since the transportation costs were extremely high due to lack of automation and standardization. Only when containerized shipping took off in the second half of the 20th century did shipping costs plunge and allowed companies to move their factories to locations with even lower labor costs. On a side note, read Marc Levinson’s The Box to understand the impact of the shipping container.

    This is the current situation with the majority of manufacturing being done abroad using materials that are sourced from across the world and then shipped and sold worldwide as final products. It’s impossible to predict what will happen over the coming decades but the combination of rising labor costs, demand for customizable products, and 3D printing suggest that manufacturing is going to start moving back towards local, agile methods. At first, it will probably be a hybrid approach with the bulk of the components still being mass made but then customized in our homes from 3D printed parts. Over time, as the quality and cost of 3D printing improves, more and more of the components will be customized, printed, and assembled at home. We’ll see the creation of a new profession - a combination of industrial designer, modeler, and tastemaker who’ll need to help us navigate this new manufacturing world. I’m excited.