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Mass Production

Predecessors To Mass Production

The principals of mass production grew out of manufacturing techniques that were already widespread in the United States. Called "the American system" or the "uniformity system," these techniques called for goods made of interchangeable parts. This meant that the cost of parts went down, but it was expensive to set up an interchangeable parts system.

Initially the uniformity system was most important in the manufacture of military equipment and clocks, both of which were built from many small parts that had to be made carefully. The United States government wanted to build weapons of high quality cheaply and swiftly, and make the parts uniform so that they could be quickly repaired during a battle. The process began at the end of the 1700s. At that time, while two rifles might look the same, any given part from one probably would not fit into the other. Guns were instead made one at a time by skilled craftsmen.

Guns required parts to be made with great accuracy. The federal government financed the initial attempts to use interchangeable parts. Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin, began the task around 1798. The parts of his muskets became more standardized but they were not really interchangeable. New equipment was invented that made parts with greater precision, and a system was created to ensure interchangeability. Patterns were used to make the parts, and a series of standardized tools were then used to measure them. Inspectors were sent to different arms factories. As a result, by mid-century the parts made at one factory fit into a gun made at another. Previously, the parts made by one worker would not fit into a gun made by the person next to him.

Around 1800, clocks still were made one at a time by hand. As a result, they were so expensive that few people owned one. The demand for clocks increased as more people lived in cities and had tight work schedules. To make clocks more cheaply, manufacturers began using power machinery and dividing labor so that workers specialized in a few tasks. Patterns were used to make parts interchangeable. Using these techniques, over 80,000 wooden clocks were made in Connecticut in 1836—twice as many as were owned in all of the United States in 1800. Division of labor was further refined so that by the 1850s, 60 workers had a part in making each clock. At the same time, fewer skilled workers were required because more work was done by machine, and this saved money. The price of a clock dropped from $10 in 1800, to $1.50 about 60 years later.

The techniques used to manufacture clocks and guns spread to other industries. The industrial revolution was underway and an increasing number of products were in demand by business and individuals. The uniformity system was used in varying degrees to make sewing machines, bicycles and mechanized farm equipment. In each case, some fitting had to be done by specialists. No one had looked at the process as a whole and broken it down into small tasks arranged in the most efficient order possible.

Such ideas were in the air, however. In the 1880s and 1890s management theorist Frederick W. Taylor studied the motion of people at work. He believed that production could be made more efficient by seeing where time and motion were wasted, then designing better work methods.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Macrofauna to MathematicsMass Production - Predecessors To Mass Production, Mass Production Begins At Ford, The Assembly Line, The Spread And Limits Of Mass Production