A Look At The Development of Mass Production Technologies

Mass production – the manufacturing of products on a vast scale, based on principles such as interchangeable parts, high-volume assembly lines, and the resulting large-scale production – has been developing since the 1800s. Just as today’s mass production looks very different from the times when steam power was a brand new invention, the technology powering tomorrow’s mass production, and the idea of mass production itself, is also set to be very different.

Some of the core concepts of mass production are likely to remain relatively unchanged. The division of labor into specialized tasks to enable minimal handling or positioning, the simplification and standardization of component parts, the development of machines, materials, and processes and finally, planning the entire process from obtaining raw materials through to delivery of the final product will all still need to work in unison to reduce the cost of production while increasing the quality of the products being made. Below we look at the beginnings of mass production and where it is likely to be headed in the near future, along with the technologies that will help us to get there.

 The Beginnings of Mass Production

It is difficult to talk about mass production techniques without mentioning the automotive industry and, of course, Henry Ford. In fact, mass production as we understand it today is an American innovation. While Henry Ford is well known for the invention of the production line – moving parts for assembly along a moving belt to assemble fly magnetos in 1913 – the level of interchangeability brought to the world by the ‘American system’ was demonstrated in 1908 by Henry M. Leland of the Cadillac Motor Car Company and also played an integral role in bringing about mass production. Even earlier than this, Frederick W. Taylor of the Midvale Steel Company in the U.S back in 1881 began his study of movement. After watching and timing the tiniest part of simple tasks such as shoveling coal, he went on to design specific tools and methods that enabled workers to produce more with less exertion.

These three Americans were the primary founders of mass production and consumer choice that we have enjoyed in recent history. Other contributors included Henri Fayol in France with his principles on the functions of management and Eli Whitney, who designed machine tools that allowed relatively unskilled workmen to create particular precision parts back in the early 1800s. Along with others studying and inventing in complementary areas, these are the historical figures that literally set into motion the chain of events that would lead to a culture of mass production in the modern era.

"Code-named Project Tinkertoy, the major objective of the program was the design and construction of a pilot plant compatable with the principles of modular design and mechanized production of electronics, or MDE and MPE. NBS intended to develop a process for automated manufacture of electronic equipment and to demonstrate it on a pilot production line.
Image: Wikimedia.com

Mass Production Today

The factories and warehouses responsible today for producing and distributing the myriad items that we see on the shelves of shops, online or in car dealer’s forecourts are a few centuries away from the likes of early mills and factories or Henry Ford’s production lines. Needless to say, many of their similarities have been lost to time. In today’s era, a typical factory is filled with a range of machines, robots, specialist tools, and fewer humans than before. Yet the moving assembly line, the simplification of component parts, and the end to end planning of a product’s creation through to delivery are all elements that very much remain core components of mass production today.

Machines that can rapidly produce sheet metal parts are being used by Ford to create parts for low-volume production reducing the cost and delivery times for prototype stamping molds. Recent robotic innovations are enhancing the final product with specialized techniques and freeing up time for floor operators to address complex issues or focus on critical thinking tasks. Factories are becoming dedicated to creating a range of parts for one product and then having those component parts shipped elsewhere for assembly, either by human workers or a different style of robot.

A factory for building engines, cars, or other large items is no longer a place filled with heat, smoke and the clanging of metal on metal. It is far more likely you’ll be seeing skilled mechanics working in pristine cleanliness, aided by quiet caged robots and their smaller, more adaptable cobot cousins. Designers and engineers sitting at computers nearby will be monitoring the entire system with AI assistance to analyze processes, monitor the production levels, catch problems before they arise, and make sure that things run as optimally as possible. Others will be working to design better processes and possibly the next product innovation for their company.

Parts of the production process is likely to be outsourced to other businesses similar to DHL and Jaguar Land Rover’s arrangement whereby DHL manage the logistics between various parts of production – delivering specialist parts from one factory to a specific point on the production line in another. Inventory, sequencing, and assembly line feed might all be outsourced to streamline operations and further increase output while minimizing cost.

Image: Wikimedia.com
Image: Wikimedia.com

The Future of Mass Production: Mass Customization

Increasingly, mass-produced items are being rejected for something a little more personal by consumers who can afford the luxury, and manufacturers are already responding with modular design and manufacturing methods that allow them to be more flexible and meet consumer desires.

90% of automotive manufacturers in a BCG survey said they expected a modular line setup to be relevant to their final assembly by 2030. Modular production can be used to produce smaller and more targeted batches of products, customized items or even longer runs of things, dependent on the market demand. Anything from sneakers to pharmaceuticals can benefit from this adapted way of working.

3D printing is also making its mark and aiding modular manufacturing and mass customization by allowing for the creation of a number of different products using a single machine. Volkswagen recently collaborated with HP to pioneer a faster metallic 3D printer that is able to produce some of the 6,000 to 8,000 parts that go into building one of their vehicles. This has negated the need for the business to also develop and manufacture the corresponding tools that would be required to create these parts in a more traditional manner. Not only does this cut production costs, but it also allows them to produce individualized design parts such as tailgate lettering, special gear knobs, or keys with personalized lettering for customers at minimal cost and effort.

Image: Huffingtonpost.com
Image: Huffingtonpost.com

3D printing is just one area enabling the beginnings of mass customization. Thanks to easily programmable cobots that learn through being moved by a human (or another robot) to learn activities required for their position on a production or assembly line, short runs of goods or individualized products are more cost effective for manufacturers. AI analytics systems now monitor various elements, if not the entire production process to ensure it runs smoothly and machine to machine transactions even allow robots to call for specific parts from another area of the organization, or another business altogether to keep the flow of production moving.

The adoption of robot technology and autonomous AI technology is rapidly changing how factories are run. The robot only plants have now been a reality for over 15 years – these large buildings don’t require lighting, heating or constant human supervision and comprise several machines functioning in cooperation. FANUC, the Japanese robot maker has been doing this exact thing since 2001, enabling their robots to build other robots without human intervention for as much as a month at a time.

If and when the modular components of manufacturing can be brought together as needed and with an interchangeable order that is seamless, efficient, and at a low cost, mass production may well make way for mass customization and a new era for manufacturing will be ushered in.

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