Supporters And Detractors Of Mass Production
As the idea of mass production became popular, manufacturers and industrialists of every kind looked for new areas in which to apply its methods. Henry Ford tried with mixed success to grow and process soybeans using mass production methods, turning them into products ranging from food to plastics and fabrics. Foster Gunnison considered himself the "Henry Ford of housing" because he built pre-fabricated houses on an assembly line beginning in the 1930s. Many furniture makers also tried mass production methods, but they did not work well for houses or furniture. Tastes for these kind of commodities were highly personal, and once bought, they were held onto for a long time. Henry Ford and others believed that mass production would save the world and move into every facet of life, but it became clear that it was not suitable for building everything.
Many people were suspicious of mass production. It arose at a time when many people were leaving small towns and farms to work in the more anonymous environment of the big city. Many saw mass production as a reflection of this loss of individuality. Some critics saw it as a cause as well. In a mass production economy, everyone bought products that were exactly the same. And the workers who made these products were, in the view of these critics, little more than slaves to machines, doing the same thing all day, everyday. Mass production was seen by some as a symbol of all that was wrong with the world. It was criticized by Aldous Huxley in his 1932 novel, "Brave New World," and by filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin in "Modern Times," from 1936.
The defenders of mass production retorted that the high wages paid by mass-production factories meant that workers could afford more products themselves. They pointed out that mass production created a great number of useful things that more people could afford. Therefore, they said, it improved people's lives.
For most people, the doubts about mass production, which intensified during the Great Depression, were swept away by World War II. Mass production created incredible volumes of equipment for the war effort. Most manufacturers switched production to war materiel. Many car factories retooled, and began to make airplane or tank engines. Using mass production methods, some factories turned out tens of thousands of guns per month, more than the entire country produced in a year before beginning the uniformity system. Meanwhile the cost of building some weapons dropped to as little as 20% of the pre-war cost.
The interchangability of parts had become a basic law of manufacturing. During the war smaller factories often made just one part, which was combined at a second factory with parts from many other factories. At the same time, part sizes were getting more specific. The holes in engine blocks often had to be precise to within thousandths of an inch. The engineering and production advances were unprecedented, but as the war demonstrated, mass production also made mass destruction possible.
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