Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Commoditizing the standardized, commoditizing the individually customized 1: a brief historical sketch as background for discussion

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on April 28, 2013

We as a species make and use things – tools and products made with them including other tools. Our species’ scientific classification name is Homo sapiens, where “sapiens” is used to designate us in terms of capacity for thought and perhaps wisdom. But a name such as Homo faber, highlighting our propensity for creative building and fabricating would be at least as appropriate. We devise and design and build, and we build the tools needed to build other more derivative tools, in order to build what we as an end result goal seek to produce.

For most of our history, and I add our tool making prehistory too, that meant building from the materials at hand and with any standardized and developed manufacturing skills employed, required to work in the face of any variations in the raw materials at hand that might be encountered. And we built for our own use or for the use of members of our own immediate family or community. The history, and I add prehistory of our building and creating efforts, insofar as our prehistory can be discerned from the record of tools and artifacts that remain from then, was local and customized and in a fundamental sense essentially purely artisanal – and handcrafted – until relatively recently.

Settled communities and a move from a more nomadic hunter gatherer existence meant our ancestors could realistically accumulate more things than they could carry at any one time and on an immediately ongoing basis. From the perspective of the things we build, use, and keep or discard, the development of agriculture and settled communities meant we began to build more to last and for longer ongoing reuse, and we began to accumulate – and to build a progressively wider range of tools and end-use products. And specialist builders – specialist artisans began to proliferate.

Specialists, particularly expert in the manufacture of specific types of tools and the products made from them appear to have first appeared well before any written record, and certainly when you consider some of the highly elaborate devices made from flint and other persistent materials that archeologists and paleontologists have found. We can only guess, baring discovery of a wider range of artifacts preserved in glacial ice or by other means but it is likely that at least some objects manufactured from wood, grasses, animal hides and other non-persistent materials were also produced by specialists with particular skills too. But either way on that, evidence I have read of and seen in museums and other repositories and common sense would suggest that at least some specialist artisans lived and worked at least as far back as the early Neolithic era and even back into the Paleolithic.

The settled community led immediately, it seems, to an explosion in the numbers of types of tools and artifacts produced, used and kept, and of the numbers and diversity of artisans who made them. And production became more standardized with time and according to settled basic designs and motifs within culturally distinct groups and so did the basic raw materials that would go into the manufacture of any given end-use product. Wider ranges of materials were used and this led to further, exponential growth in the diversity of items producible and of items actually, consistently produced. And communities grew in scale and connected through increasingly widespread trade and commerce, and through shared culture and governance and law. I, of course, present this in what is essentially cartoon form as my focus here is on the artifacts and objects made and their diversity, and on the emergence of specialist producers who would sell what they make, and increasingly for the products of other specialist manufacturers.

And I cut ahead from that to the first mass production, still primarily following an artisanal approach but as a larger organized effort, and to the earliest assembly lines. And with that manufacturing innovation, I come to what could be seen from the perspective of this rough timeline to a point that is still, at least historically, very close to our immediate past.

This “history” up to here really is more cartoon than anything else and offered here more for discussion of what comes next as Henry Ford’s real invention – the assembly line took off and became mainstreamed in production and manufacturing everywhere. Suddenly more standardized copies of essentially anything that could be mass produced in repetitive step stages, could be produced and more quickly and more cost-effectively and more inexpensively to the buyer and consumer than ever before while still bringing a significant profit to the manufacturer. Henry Ford did not invent the automobile; he built cars that the average citizen could afford, starting with his own employees and people like them in their communities. Businesses that mass produced, and with assembly line and similar manufacturing effectiveness multipliers, came to dominate their markets and their industries and manufacturing production as a whole.

• And what began as artisanal production of essentially one-off products, standardized to basic design perhaps, but manufactured from varying raw materials, shifted to larger scale and even mass production of more identically uniform end products, with standardized methods and starting from more uniformly consistent starting materials – that in many cases were themselves the products of manufacturing processes.
• And as a basic progression and as a result of a series of paradigm shifts, handcrafted and artisanal as the basic pattern of production gave way to mass produced and I add machine produced, as finished consumer oriented products were manufactured from components and materials that were themselves manufactured, and generally from still further removed manufactured products – with the products ultimately used, one step further removed from true raw materials with every step of this progression.
• And this is where automation enters this narrative, as basic rote performance, repetitive production steps are increasingly removed from direct human hands-on production and carried out by machines – self-directing tools.
• And mass produced standardization became the norm and certainly going into and in the 20th century and for the West and increasingly everywhere else too. And this is the starting point that I had in mind when first thinking through this posting – this state of manufacturing as a current baseline for comparison.

I am going to continue this discussion in a next series installment where I will delve into some of the defining issues as to what artisanal production is, in a mass produced and assembly line driven world. And I will proceed from there to examine the new and still actively emerging re-individualization of production as we approach the options and capabilities of a post-assembly line design and manufacturing world. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations and its Part 2 continuation page.

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