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The Industrial Revolution is Over

Industry Decay – flickr creative commons

Wikipedia defines the industrial revolution as such:

The Industrial Revolution was the transition to new manufacturing processes in the period from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840. This transition included going from hand production methods to machines, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, improved efficiency of water power, the increasing use of steam power and the development of machine tools. It also included the change from wood and other bio-fuels to coal. It began in Britain and within a few decades had spread to Western Europe and the United States.

I would say that the Industrial Revolution actually hit is peek around the 1960s when factories employed hundreds of thousands of workers to manufacture everything from air conditioners to watches. No matter what it was, people were required to put it together. This promotional video produced by RCA in 1959 shows what was involved in making color televisions during the 1950s in a New Jersey plant. All of this was done by hand. Computers were still big, slow and very, very expensive. In fact Motorola and Zenith both used point to point wiring even in their solid state color sets up through the mid 1970s.

Not just electronics but cars and furniture and clothes and toys. As the Japanese and automation and computer controlled manufacturing took over, these plants got shut down. People were needed less and less to build more and more complex things. CNC and computer aided design enabled engineers to design and build prototypes almost in a day. Printed circuit board designs shipped out to “board houses” and the boards shipped back. Pick and place machines instead of people assembled the boards, computers tested them and computer controlled machines installed the boards into plastic cases that were also manufactured by machines.

From the Hollerith cards used to run the mills of old to computer designed fabrics that can be what ever design or color you wanted. CNC run milling and routers for furniture. Laser cutting of fabrics and on an on. The workers involved need not be as highly trained, for their tasks no longer required it. Push button progress.

The big assembly lines of old gave way to packing centers. One of two people could turn out more products now than the plant managers in the RCA video could ever hope for in their day. And have the ability do to it even more reliably. In a way we have come full circle. Home 3D printers and CNC operated routers and mills are becoming more and more common place. The ability to design and build you own printed circuit boards has been around for nearly 40 years now and is even easier now than 10 years ago. You can design you own multi-sided circuit board, send the design off through the Internet to a board house where they will make the board for you and even put the parts on it, if you wish.

It was only natural that RCA and GE who were increasingly sending their products to Japan and Taiwan to be produced would wind up out of business as Taiwanese and Japanese companies produced items there to compete.

The need for big plants to manufacture everything has shrunk considerably and is shrinking still. The industrial revolution that made the desk top computer possible is coming to an end, as the PC is now making the manufacturing plant an anachronism.

We are in a way coming back to the world that was replaced in the late 18th century where now a few people can build what they need in their garage or small shop. Where big plants are only really needed for big articles like planes and trucks and cars and ships, for which there is not a big call for. Certainly not something one would buy at Target or Amazon.

The question now is, what do we do now?  What do we do with the Chester Rileys in a George Jetson world?

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