written by:
illustrated by:
March 17, 2010
Originally published in Prefab Today

If the design world feels like an endless  parade of products, then the gnashing maws of industrial production assuredly underpin it all. Take a look at how leading manufacturers make what they make, with a special eye on how to clean up what is often a messy act.

Manufacturing icons illustration
Little matters more in manufacturing than having your information straight. Read on and read up. We’ve got you covered.
Manufacturing icons illustration
Little matters more in manufacturing than having your information straight. Read on and read up. We’ve got you covered.

Manufacturing began the moment the first prehistoric creature broke a twig off a tree and began to use it as a tool. It has since developed to the point where the bulk of the world economy consists of masses of people using tools to make products for other masses of people to buy.

Although workshops employing people laboring to create a specific product existed as far back as ancient China and Imperial Rome, the concept of the factory—–a place where humans, machines, and a source of energy come together to produce the same object—–didn’t really take off until the 1770s, when an English barber and con man named Richard Arkwright borrowed other people’s ideas to create a machine that used horsepower to spin cotton into yarn.

Soon other factories sprang up, using everything from waterpower to steam to make objects as disparate as buttons and battleships. The immense output of these factories, and the immense profits they earned for their owners, put an end to the age of handcrafted goods. The industrial revolution had begun.

By the early 20th century, developments in industrial planning, as well as advances in machinery and materials, led to the industrial revolution’s innovative peak: Henry Ford’s assembly line. Ford’s genius was to ensure that each worker did precisely one thing in a way that was carefully designed to all but eliminate the possibility of mistakes. Manufacturing in this era was about repetition: Identical movements by identical workers produced a nearly endless supply of identical goods.

People had at last become part of the machine, and soon after, so would art. Germany’s Bauhaus school saw the machine in everything: the machine as an extension of the hand, the chair as a machine for sitting, the house as a machine for living. Materials that could only have come from factories—–tubed steel, vinyl, acrylic—–began showing up as furniture, and by mid-century, we had entered the era of the industrially inspired skyscraper. Rows of Mies van der Rohes arose in downtowns the world over, making even the city, previously the demesne of bricklayers, masons, and carpenters, into one more product of a machine.

In the United States, where our economy used to be based on making things, we seem to have spent the past 30 years essentially giving away our factory infrastructure and know-how. This might spell the end of the United States as a major manufacturer, or it might set the stage for the next manufacturing revolution, one fueled by green technology. That one may very well be America’s last, though.

New developments in computers and robotics might provide us with a future that would have been all but unthinkable a few decades ago: filled with goods produced in the millions, but in a million different factories and with a million minor variations that make each one unique. We may be looking forward to a manufacturing future where do-it-yourself is the guiding principle—–where the factory is a box on your desktop and the end result is a high-tech, multifunctional, manufactured product as organic as a twig.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

45 dva 2270 persp1 cmyk 0
The prospect of retirement doesn’t just signal the end of a career; it offers the chance to recalibrate and re-prioritize in life.
July 25, 2016
You don’t have to choose between sustainable energy and curb appeal.
July 19, 2016
jakemagnus queensland 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
July 06, 2016
content delzresidence 013 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 29, 2016
abc malacari marwick stair 01 0
A simple set of stairs is a remodel’s backbone.
June 28, 2016
Design Award of Excellence winner Mellon Square.
Docomomo US announces the winners of this year's Modernism in America Awards. Each project showcases exemplary modern restoration techniques, practices, and ideas.
June 27, 2016
monogram dwell sf 039 1
After last year’s collaboration, we were excited to team up with Monogram again for the 2016 Monogram Modern Home Tour.
June 27, 2016
switch over chicago smart renovation penthouse deck smar green ball lamps quinze milan lounge furniture garapa hardwood
A strategic rewire enhances a spec house’s gut renovation.
June 26, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent coralie gourguechon treviso italy cphotos by coralie gourguechon co produced by isdat planche anatomique de haut parleur1
Coralie Gourguechon's paper objects will make you see technology in a whole new way.
June 26, 2016
green machine smart home aspen colorado facade yard bocci deck patio savant
Smart technology helps a house in Aspen, Colorado, stay on its sustainable course.
June 25, 2016
Compact Aglol 11 television plastic brionvega.
The aesthetic appeal of personal electronics has long fueled consumer interest. A new industrial design book celebrates devices that broke the mold.
June 25, 2016
modern backyard deck ipe wood
An angled deck transforms a backyard in Menlo Park, California, into a welcoming gathering spot.
June 24, 2016
dscf5485 1
Today, we kicked off this year’s annual Dwell on Design at the LA Convention Center, which will continue through Sunday, June 26th. Though we’ve been hosting this extensive event for years, this time around is particularly special.
June 24, 2016
under the radar renovation napa
Two designers restore a low-slung midcentury gem in Napa, California, by an unsung Bay Area modernist.
June 24, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
June 24, 2016
light and shadow bathroom walnut storage units corian counter vola faucet
A Toronto couple remodel their home with a special emphasis on a spacious kitchen and a material-rich bathroom.
June 24, 2016
Affordable home in Kansas City living room
In Kansas City, an architecture studio designs an adaptable house for a musician on a budget.
June 23, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment oak vertical slats office
By straightening angles, installing windows, and adding vertical accents, architect Aaron Ritenour brought light and order to an irregularly shaped apartment in the heart of Athens, Greece.
June 23, 2016
kitchen confidential tiles custom cabinetry oak veneer timber house
A modest kitchen addition to a couple’s cottage outside of Brisbane proves that one 376-square-foot room can revive an entire home.
June 23, 2016
feldman architecture 0
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 22, 2016
Blackened timber Dutch home
A modern dwelling replaces a fallen farmhouse.
June 22, 2016
hillcrest house interior kitchen 3
Seeking an escape from bustling city life, a Manhattan couple embarks on a renovation in the verdant Hudson Valley.
June 22, 2016
Atelier Moderno renovated an old industrial building to create a luminous, modern home.
June 21, 2016
San Francisco floating home exterior
Anchored in a small San Francisco canal, this floating home takes its cues from a classic city habitat.
June 21, 2016
modern renovation addition solar powered scotland facade steel balcony
From the bones of a neglected farmstead in rural Scotland emerges a low-impact, solar-powered home that’s all about working with what was already there.
June 21, 2016
up in the air small space new zealand facade corrugated metal cladding
An architect with a taste for unconventional living spaces creates a small house at lofty heights with a starring view.
June 21, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent marjan van aubel london cwai ming ng current window
Marjan Van Aubel makes technology a little more natural.
June 21, 2016
urban pastoral brooklyn family home facade steel cypress double
Building on the site of a former one-car garage, an architect creates his family’s home in an evolving neighborhood of Brooklyn.
June 20, 2016
Modern Brooklyn backyard studio with plexiglass skylight, green roof, and cedar cladding facade
In a Brooklyn backyard, an off-duty architect builds a structure that tests his attention to the little things.
June 20, 2016
the outer limits paris prefab home living area vertigo lamp constance guisset gijs bakker strip tablemetal panels
In the suburbs of Paris, an architect with an eco-friendly practice doesn’t let tradition stand in the way of innovation.
June 20, 2016