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An Introduction to Manufacturing

If the design world feels like an endless  parade of products, then the gnashing maws of industrial production assuredly underpin it all. Take a look at how leading manufacturers make what they make, with a special eye on how to clean up what is often a messy act.
 

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Little matters more in manufacturing than having your information straight. Read on and read up. We’ve got you covered.

Manufacturing began the moment the first prehistoric creature broke a twig off a tree and began to use it as a tool. It has since developed to the point where the bulk of the world economy consists of masses of people using tools to make products for other masses of people to buy.

Although workshops employing people laboring to create a specific product existed as far back as ancient China and Imperial Rome, the concept of the factory—–a place where humans, machines, and a source of energy come together to produce the same object—–didn’t really take off until the 1770s, when an English barber and con man named Richard Arkwright borrowed other people’s ideas to create a machine that used horsepower to spin cotton into yarn.

Soon other factories sprang up, using everything from waterpower to steam to make objects as disparate as buttons and battleships. The immense output of these factories, and the immense profits they earned for their owners, put an end to the age of handcrafted goods. The industrial revolution had begun.

By the early 20th century, developments in industrial planning, as well as advances in machinery and materials, led to the industrial revolution’s innovative peak: Henry Ford’s assembly line. Ford’s genius was to ensure that each worker did precisely one thing in a way that was carefully designed to all but eliminate the possibility of mistakes. Manufacturing in this era was about repetition: Identical movements by identical workers produced a nearly endless supply of identical goods.

People had at last become part of the machine, and soon after, so would art. Germany’s Bauhaus school saw the machine in everything: the machine as an extension of the hand, the chair as a machine for sitting, the house as a machine for living. Materials that could only have come from factories—–tubed steel, vinyl, acrylic—–began showing up as furniture, and by mid-century, we had entered the era of the industrially inspired skyscraper. Rows of Mies van der Rohes arose in downtowns the world over, making even the city, previously the demesne of bricklayers, masons, and carpenters, into one more product of a machine.

In the United States, where our economy used to be based on making things, we seem to have spent the past 30 years essentially giving away our factory infrastructure and know-how. This might spell the end of the United States as a major manufacturer, or it might set the stage for the next manufacturing revolution, one fueled by green technology. That one may very well be America’s last, though.

New developments in computers and robotics might provide us with a future that would have been all but unthinkable a few decades ago: filled with goods produced in the millions, but in a million different factories and with a million minor variations that make each one unique. We may be looking forward to a manufacturing future where do-it-yourself is the guiding principle—–where the factory is a box on your desktop and the end result is a high-tech, multifunctional, manufactured product as organic as a twig.

  • an introduction to manufacturing gear grid

    Slag Solution

    Enter Serious Materials and its EcoRock drywall. EcoRock is not all-natural drywall—–that would be called “wood”—–but it is an attempt to do away with wasteful gypsum drywall manufacturing by taking the leftovers of other manufacturing processes and turning them into something useful.

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    Let’s Get Small

    Hammers and nails are out, friends, and as the (patent) pending nanotech revolution shows, manufacturing is on the eve of the atom.

  • slag solution hot and cold thumbnail

    Wall of Shame

    It started out as a great idea: Do away with wet-plaster wall construction, which required multiple workers taking days or weeks to plaster a house (and weeks or months for the plaster to set). So, in 1894, an ex–Navy engineer named Augustine Sackett designed and obtained U.S. patent 520123 for “a board or plate used as a substitute for lath and plaster”: the first successful drywall. But Sackett’s felt-wrapped board remained a specialty item in the building trades; plaster-and-lath wall construction predominated until the 1940s.

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    Absolutely Fabricated

    We talked to a handful of movers and makers to see what's in store for the wider manufacturing world.

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