Today, the output of mass production is quite synonymous to low quality. An automated production line combined with unskilled labour, manufacturing standardised components and universal goods in bulk to answer the needs of the consumer masses. A highly mainstream approach, often coming together with plenty of industrial waste and pollution, and without a real tailored to the end client touch, and naturally, not resonating well with the needs of the Millennials and Generation Z consumers, who prefer to go for hand-made, custom-tailored, upcycled, sustainable and non-standard.
Mass production is based on the principles of specialisation and division of labour and was first described at length by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations in 1776. And while by the end of 1790s some American factories have implemented those principles in their production, it was the mid industrial revolution to give them a boost, yet the way ahead to capitalize on the efficiency was still under-paved, as the first British source to record the use of the term, The Economic journal, announced in 1893: “For the individual to anticipate mass-production..involves a greater outlay.”
The real break through came with the assembly line, implemented firstly by Ransom Eli Olds who used it to build the first mass-produced automobile, the Oldsmobile Curved Dash, beginning in 1901. And then came Henry Ford to create the moving belt assembly line to roll off his Model T, starting in 1908.
Ford’s assembly line delivered parts moving by hooks, overhead chains, or moving platforms to workers in the exact order in which they were required for production, and after several years of modernisation, Model Ts were rolling off the assembly lines at the rate of one every 10 seconds of each working day, and by the end of 1913 Ford was actually producing half of all the cars made in the United States.
The real popularisation of the term mass production came in 1926, when the Encyclopædia Britannica came out with an article written based on correspondence with the Ford Motor Company, and The New York Times in its 19th September issue published: “HENRY FORD EXPOUNDS MASS PRODUCTION; Calls It the Focussing of the Principles of Power, Economy, Continuity and Speed — Tells Why Accurate Machines Produce the Highest Standard of Quality.”
Following Ford’s success, mass production quickly became the dominant form of manufacturing around the world, attracting the appearance of its first critics, among which the American sociologist Lewis Mumford, Architectural record,1930: “One might call this the model T dilemma. Mass-production..suffers..from rigidity.”
Modern mass production shows signs of flexibility and adaptation and is taking steps ahead to economically viable tailoring, with the cooperation of digital technologies (most notably 3D printers) and skilled people, both on the production line and in the design and engineering process, aiming to create the factory of the future where products would roll off in quantities that ensure high quality and customisation.