The economic debate of Mass Production or Specialised Labour has been a debate that has raged for literally a thousand years, and has turned up in some surprising places. It is the debate as to whether it’s better to make a thousand identical items where each person puts one piece together then passes it to the next person, like lemmings in a factory line-up, or whether it is best to hire a specialist to craft the whole piece slowly and uniquely by hand so that the final product is something of high quality tailored for the individual.
To put this question another way: Is it better to make a thousand suit jackets that are “one-size fits all”, or to hire a specialist tailor to craft a single jacket designed to perfectly compliment the individual? The answer may seem obvious, but let’s take a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of these systems and see if the pros do or don’t outweigh the cons.
A History of Mass Production
The first example of mass-production as we would recognise it today comes from third century China, with crossbows that were built on assembly lines by people who were only trained in how to put their few individual pieces together. In Europe, perhaps the most famous ancient example is the mighty fleet of Carthage’s warships, which were so efficient at reducing the skill required for construction that they carved instructions of how to put the shi together into the wood of their ships – a fact that allowed the early Roman Republic to learn ship-building simply by disassembling and reassembling a washed up Carthaginian vessel, ultimately leading to the destruction of the Carthaginian navy and of Carthage as a whole. This process would be repeated a millenia later by the Republic of Venice during the Renaissance, who at their height built one ship a day by employing an assembly line of 16,000 lowly trained labourers. Today, the assembly factory line is a little different, with many of the positions on the line being automated with machines and robots. Everything from our cars to our chocolates are produced with these mass-production techniques, and in a world of globalisation the “factory line” is much more widespread than it used to be.
Mass Production has a number of strong advantages. The first is that it’s a cheap way to produce a high volume of products in a short amount of time. To use our suit analogy from earlier, it is a lot faster to produce a generic suit jacket that will fit most people with only minor adjustments, than to hire a tailor to take measurements, sew the entire jacket and make both minor and major adjustments to craft the perfect fit.
At first glance, you might think that this is simply the argument of quantity over quality, but it’s not quite that. Chances are, you’re reading this article on a device that has been mass produced, whether it be your phone or your computer – and there’s a good chance that you’ve had it customised in different ways, such as installing specialised software or increasing and decreasing the total amount of memory or storage capacity. You can probably see where I’m going with this, this is where elements of Mass-Production starts to overtake specialised labour because mass-production can produce a reliable level of quality that is equal to or exceeds the needs of the individual and still retains some flexibility in customisation upon delivery.
Remember our suit? If the generic jacket only requires minor adjustments with no sacrifice in function or quality – and it is of a high enough quality to fulfil its purpose – then in theory there is no loss of quality or value by using mass-production. The only area where value is lost? Prestige, and that can be acquired in other ways such as branding or through those minor alterations.
Once upon a time, it was true that mass-production meant lower quality than a dedicated specialist, but with the rise of both techniques in efficiency and automation, today that is an economic myth. Another myth is that mass-production can only cater for the lowest common denominator – the needs of the majority but fails the needs of the minorities – but that is also untrue. There’s nothing stopping companies from having a factory line for each size and body type, or producing mass-produced items that are intended to be assembled customised by untrained labourers at the receiving end.
IKEA’s flat-pack furniture is perhaps the most prominent example of this, providing the consumer with the parts and instructions they need to build a set of drawers, and enough variants of the design to have drawers of nearly any width, any length, or any depth – and some of the designs offer a range of variations in materials and presentation too! Clothes can be mass-produced in cotton blends, but also in pure cotton, pure wool, silk, or a variety of other combinations. If it can be produced, it can be mass-produced. Basically, it’s like LEGO.
There is, however, one major drawback to mass-production and that is if something goes wrong in the process. The process from prototype to mass production can be a tricky one, and if there is any failing in the process – parts that are missing, a labourer becomes ill without warning, confused instructions – a trained and qualified professional is required to plug that gap. In a world of pure-mass-production, any error in the process or supply line couldn’t be fixed. For this reason many companies employ one or two specialists who are willing and able to fix those problems when they arise. By blending these two methods together, specialised workers within a mass-produced framework, the potential deficiencies of mass-production are entirely resolved.
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