One could say manufacturing began about 7,000 years ago when ancient humans started producing various articles made of stone, wood, ceramics and metal.
From these simple beginnings, manufacturing has progressed over the millenniums into the automated factories we see today.
Before high-quality, mass production in the modern factories we see today could become reality, countless inventions, both great and small, were necessary. One of the most important was the the steam engine invented by James Watt in 1769. It was far more practical and efficient than any other steam engine previously produced. For the first time, people had a reliable, efficient source of power other than water.
As Watt’s steam engine began to be used for textile manufacturing and other purposes, it moved industry away from water sources towards population centers and was highly instrumental in creating the modern factory system. This in turn helped bring about the industrial revolution.
With the invention of interchangeable parts, Eli Whitney added another indispensable component to modern manufacturing.
In 1801, he went to Washington and demonstrated to an astonished audience how standardized parts could be exchanged between muskets. With interchangeable parts, manufacturing was transformed from a usually slow, expensive process of very experienced craftsmen to something that could be done in factories by relatively unskilled labor.
Factories could now manufacture much cheaper goods in larger quantities.
Henry Ford built on the idea of interchangeable parts to create the moving factory assembly line. Factory workers could now spend much less time moving about, and the pace of manufacturing could have a continuous flow.
Ford also broke the manufacturing process down so each worker had a specific job rather than working on the whole car. These processes revolutionized factory production and made possible the cheap, efficient manufacturing that supplies us with the products we need today.
As the world changes, so does manufacturing. Ideas like “lean manufacturing,” developed primarily by Toyota Motors, continue to change how modern factories manufacture products. After World War II, the Japanese significantly lagged the U.S. in manufacturing. Therefore, they looked for a manufacturing edge to compete with the dominant American factories of the day. Lean manufacturing was a way to reduce waste and increase efficiency in their factories.
The principle behind lean manufacturing is to continuously work to eliminate anything in the manufacturing process that does not add value to the final consumer and improve the manufacturing process. For example, factories and manufacturing are structured to reduce transportation since it wastes time and resources. Organizational changes are made to keep inventories at an absolute minimum to reduce storage costs and increase flexibility.
In the future, these and other new ideas are certain to continue to change factories and manufacturing in ways we never imagined.