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How Manufacturing has changed in 300 years

diagram showing how manufacturing has changed in 300 years

Alexa, WhatsApp, big tall glass buildings, disposable electronics, spacecraft landing on comets. All different but all of them owing to their existence to the Industrial Revolution. Just think of all the things you personally use, all the things which you rely on. All of them have been touched by the hand of modern manufacturing.

The CNC machine has most likely touched every part of every single thing you use. Even your bowl of cereal relied on a machine, whether that was the machine harvesting the wheat or the automated machine milking a cow.

It’s not too much to think that life today would be next to impossible without your phone or laptop. In fact even your fast food, your delivery from Amazon. Anything delivered around the world or the last mile has got there because of either an internal combustion engine, a jet engine or a near-silent electric vehicle.

Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution made this all possible. We at Wisconsin Metal Tech produce the precision parts essential to everything from cars, robots, food production to aerospace. All this was made possible because of innovations and techniques because of something that happened over 300 years ago.

The Industrial Revolution started in England in the late 1700s. This was a time when most families lived in small villages or hamlets of a few houses in rural settings. They produced everything they needed themselves or bought or traded with their neighbors. Growing their own food or making their own clothing. Perhaps twice a year they visited their nearest town to buy or sell.

Life was hard, food production was dependent on climate, pests, etc. People were going hungry and diseases were out of control. They were working their fingers to the bone because the more they produced the more money they made. But if they couldn’t make something fast enough they went hungry, and when they were hungry they didn’t have the strength to make anything.

A change was coming

This was all about to change. It began first with the Agricultural Revolution, processes which increased food production by a factor of 10. There are many reasons that the revolution started in England first. It is a small island, the population was increasing rapidly but it had abundant natural resources. I had metals such as tin and copper to huge sources of coal. The government was stable at a time when the rest of Europe was suffering through other types of revolutions. Businesses were allowed to do business without red tape and to expand as they wished.

The country was moving away from the cottage industry into vast factories. The new industrialists controlled everything from the raw wool, to spinning machines. Turning it into yarn and then weaving it into clothing. In 1733, John Kay, a British inventor, and engineer received a patent for a device called the Flying Shuttle. This new device allowed one person to weave cloth twice as fast.

Age of Steam

Along with the flying shuttle, another invention was about to change everything, not just cloth making. Thomas Newcomen had invented the Steam Engine in 1712. By the mid-1700s, there were over 600 of these engines in production all over England.

James Watt improved the design and thousands of new steam engines were made and installed all over the world. However the engines had a drawback, they used steam at atmospheric pressure, so lacked in power.

The introduction of the high-pressure steam engine allowed more power to be produced and men like Richard Trevithick made huge improvements that allowed mass production. Road vehicles were now running on steam as were ships and a new form of transport, the Steam Locomotive would allow fast movement of goods all over the world. These developments would eventually lead to the steam turbine, a type of engine still in use by 90% of electricity-producing power plants in the US.

Before the industrial revolution, 80% of people worked on farms. There were needed to feed themselves and others. Today that figure is just 1%, due to these early developments.

People were flocking from their villages to the big cities, everything from transportation to water treatment was seeing massive improvement. There was an increase in overall wealth as well as in health and life expectancy because of progress in medical knowledge.

There is no doubt that there were some negatives to the industrial revolution such as a rise in pollution but other ‘negatives’ such as bad working conditions, child labor had always existed. In fact, the labor laws and safety at work we enjoy today are directly due to the industrial revolution.

early steam engine
Early Steam Engine – James Watt

The Age of Electricity

We must look at the Industrial Revolution which started in England as the first one. The next happened across the pond in New York of the late 19th century. It primarily starts with the entrepreneur and prodigious inventor, Thomas Edison.

If the first industrial revolution was powered by steam, the second was powered by Electricity. Thomas Edison used electricity to light up New York City in 1882. He quickly started to light up other cities and soon electricity was speeding around the world, from Belfast to Berlin, London to Lisbon, powering not only lights but machines.

The large corporations in the US and then Germany dominated the electricity industry. They dominated the development, production, and sales of manufactured goods, everything from furniture produced to steel parts was now being produced on electric-powered lathes and milling machines. General Electric and Westinghouse were the power behind every large city around the world.

In factories, manpower was being replaced by machine power. Processes were improving on an almost daily basis. The change was even faster than that during the first industrial revolution. Electricity and high precision machining were also allowing communication to evolve at a massive pace. The electric telegraph having been invented in 1844 with the telephone making an appearance a few decades later in 1876. This allowed fast communication across the country and helped to speed up manufacturing, an order from Los Angeles could be sent to New York in seconds rather than having to wait weeks by post.

Faster Horses

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses

When Henry Ford asked his peers how they wanted to improve transportation they replied with ‘faster horses’ he got back to them with the Model T. But that was not his contribution to the modern work we live in. It was to be in 1913 that he changed everything. He revolutionized manufacturing by using the Assemble Line, specialized stations position along a moving line, with parts being added to the car as it moved down the line.

This came in to play during the First World War, assembly lines were used in the massive production of everything the government needed. Ammunition, clothing, vehicles plus other war supplies were being produced in pretty much every factory up and down the country.

By the time WW2 came around, machines were producing other machines.

Automation Age

Soon after WW2 companies started to experiment with the new computers and other technical advances in manufacturing which came in to existance soon after. Technologies such as Magnetic Tape allowed early CNC machines to produce parts using automation with less intervention from an operator/machinist.

This combined with the breakthroughs in servo motors and men such as Douglas T Ross at MIT who helped in creating the software such as Automatically Programmed Tool or APT. These new tools meant that machines were now able to be used to create complex, high precision parts.

The birth of the CNC machine has brought us to the state of manufacturing which allows us all to live the lives we do today.

industrial cnc manufacturing machine
Modern CNC Manufaturing Machine

The Internet Age

We can look back at the past 300 years and see how technology, systems, processes are constantly improving and becoming ever more efficient. We are living in a time when the internet has become the electricity of the 21st century. NFC, Bluetooth, and WiFi are the new production lines. Thoughts, processes, ideas, technical drawings are passed around between workplaces, universities and R & D labs in a fraction of a second around the world.

A fleeting thought becomes an idea, an email is sent, drawings created, a prototype is made and CNC machines begin production. Anything is possible, just look at the number of companies turning over production to ventilators and masks to fight off COVID-19.

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