My books on manufacturing

My books on manufacturing
My books on manufacturing history
Showing posts with label Ford. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ford. Show all posts

Saturday, April 6, 2024

Who else shaped the Manufacturing World - The American System of Manufacturing

 Continuing my quest to discover who else shaped the manufacturing world, not unreasonably, I turn to America. 

An entry in the Oxford reference book is clear that America had a system of manufacturing that put it well ahead of other manufacturing nations. An academic article is more cautious looking at the American manufacturing system in the context of four products: guns, wooden timepieces, watches and axes. The system, in short, was to have interchangeable parts which could be machine made in bulk and then put together in the final product, the key being that all this could be done by unskilled workers. The article highlights one drawback that more time is needed for adjustment as interchangeable parts in practice don’t fit perfectly. Nonetheless, there it seems is the ‘system’.

The story of American manufacturing picks up from the accounts of the early settlements where the imperative was to secure food and shelter. Rebecca Fraser’s account of the Mayflower Generation focuses on the struggles with ill-health and the uninviting natural environment; relations with the native population were then not hostile. In time hostility grew as the native Indians took exception to the approach of some settlers. A third imperative was thus security.

As population increased and the infrastructure of society developed, American found itself as an exporter of agricultural produce not least tobacco, sugar and cotton. Imports were of slaves for the plantations but also manufactured goods. These goods would include weapons, agricultural tools, clothing and basic objects for the home.

The war of independence drew a line in the sand as the newly free nation weened itself off dependence on the old colonial power. This didn’t happen overnight and indeed had probably started before independence as Americans would invite in particular textile and arms manufacturers to help them set up their own facilities. As would be the case so often in the way Britain shaped the manufacturing world, the young countries would create new factories with new machinery and so not be incumbered with earlier processes or machines.

This opportunity to start with a clean sheet of paper surely contributed the what became known as the American System of Manufacturing where identical parts would be produced using machines instead of the then traditional more labour intensive and skilled manual process. Another driver of this was the need to move a workforce from agriculture to manufacturing without the time consuming learning of manual skills. The nature of the American republic is important. Where we talk of agricultural workers, we often mean small holders; men and women who had fought their way into self-sufficiency. There would therefore not be many prepared to give that up for the sake of a job in a factory. Equally in the agrarian society there were not skilled mechanics.

One name stands out in addressing this challenge and that was Eli Whitney whose career began in the southern states where he invented the cotton gin to improve the processing of raw cotton. He then moved north and set up in gun making. In order to meet the volumes needed, tasks needed to be undertaken by machines operated by unskilled labour.

Inventions alone were not enough, the creation of the American arms and textile industries was enabled by government purchasing for the needs of the army and so creating a level of demand that justified mechanisation. The position of US Ordnance is interesting. There were two main arsenals in Springfield, Massachusetts, and in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. In time these were supplemented by private manufacturers, principally Winchester Repeating Arms Company and Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing both of which became successful leaders.

The evidence is that by 1851 the American system of manufacture was a known quantity as there is the story of Colt visiting the Great Exhibition and meeting a steam engine manufacturer, Richard Garrett, who was so impressed by Colt’s manufacturing methods that he built the first British factory geared to mass production, the Long Shop.

I can fast forward to the Second World War when Ford tried to make Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. These were handmade, but Ford needed to mass produce. Ford and Rolls-Royce engineers broke down the engine into parts and then into the engineering steps required to make those parts. These steps would be carried out on machines by largely unskilled workers many of whom were women new to the workplace.

Going back to the nineteenth century, America was becoming self-sufficient in manufacturing with one major exception. America, whilst rich in raw material, had only a very small capacity to produce iron and none really for steel, and it was steel that was needed not least for the massive project of connecting American by rail. This meant that not only England, but Germany and Belgium exported steel rails, tyres and other railway equipment including locomotives and rolling stock. I have written in HBSTMW how this export trade boosted British steel making and this was also the case with the German Krupp which I write about in a separate post. The story of the American steel industry is thus another strand which I will cover.

The image is of my mother and father together with the president of Chrysler at their WW2 tank factory which surely epitomised the American System of Manufacturing. You can read more of this by following this link.

How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World is now available to pre-order

Phil Hamlyn Williams has completed his sixth book beginning an exploration of British manufacturing. His great-grandfather exhibited at the ...