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.