The last word: Are you part of The New Industrial Revolution?

Posted on 31 Aug 2012

Will Stirling reviews Peter Marsh’s new book about the shifting forces that are shaping manufacturing, from how companies are organising themselves as manufacturing democritises to the emergence of a new era of ‘mass personalisation’.

The New Industrial Revolution by Peter Marsh

This is a story that had to be told. And Peter Marsh, manufacturing editor of the Financial Times and a 30-year veteran of industrial reporting, was perhaps best equipped to tell it.

The New Industrial Revolution – Consumers, Globalization and the End of Mass Production, published in July, tells a comprehensive story of the changes in manufacturing, from the crude smelting techniques in the pre-Iron Age era to the complex value chains behind Apple’s iPhone, the rise of 3D printing and nanotechnology.

Here you will learn how things are made but crucially why they became a dominant product, and why they are made where they are made. The power of people is a common denominator, from the industrialists such as Ford and Mittal to the unassuming engineers like Sir David McMurtry and the visionaries such as gunmaker John Browning and the polymath Hermann Hauser.

The book sets out to explain the importance of consumer demand and choice on how manufacturing has modified, and how technology has enabled this change to occur, not just in Western countries, but globally. Globalisation is evident throughout, for example in the growth of ‘mother’ factories and R&D centres in developing countries which hitherto were deemed suitable only for subordinate facilities.

An ambitious body of work, meticulously researched and cited, the book is a treasure trove of information on industrial history, modern manufacturing and business. Along the way, we learn about companies that make pencils, glass, air spindles, cars, kettle controls, vacuum cleaners, laser cutting machines, ceramic tiles and more.

The author picks companies that illustrate key points about hybrid manufacturing, interconnected manufacturing or the evolution of value chains. How Faber-Castell organises its global supply chain of graphite, wood and clay for its pencils is as intriguing a case study as that for a 400MW gas turbine.

We are experiencing a fifth industrial revolution, according to Marsh. The first was the Industrial Revolution, the second a transport revolution and the third a revolution of science, between 1860 and 1930. The fourth, the so-called ‘computer’ revolution from 1950 to 2000, proved the veracity of Moore’s law and the inverse relationship between rising computing power and its cost. The new industrial revolution, starting around 2005, will be the fifth.

Consumer choice and production volume dictate manufacturing methods, which seek a balance between two approaches, customisation and standardisation. Marsh explains how the world has passed from low-volume customisation to high-volume customisation. The fifth stage that we have entered is ‘mass personalisation’ – the ability to produce near unique products to precise personal criteria in mass – and this will characterise the new industrial revolution.

Sometimes the prose needs abbreviating, for example Marsh’s explanation of the four phases of manufacturing (from low volume customised to high volume customised) is a bit laboured. But mostly, the content is sharp, punctuated liberally by hard facts and neat anecdotes.

The book is packed with stories about what we take for granted. Did you know that the printed circuit board industry would be impossible without bearingless air spindles, the technology for most air spindle machines originates from two companies in Poole, Dorset? Or that liquid crystal displays, now numbering some 200 million units p/a, were born out of research by the University of Hull and the Royal Signals?

Marsh exhibits an intense passion for manufacturing in a dispassionate, organised way. His knowledge of the subject – from steel-making to carbon fullerenes to jidoka – is awesome. The book is a rich horde of knowledge that serves as both a good story and a blueprint text for a manufacturing MBA.

This is a very important book which should be read by advocates of industry and manufacturing professionals. And it has a key message; a globalised world with better technology and communications means greater access to design and manufacture for all – but beware complacency.