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Manufacturing the future

The New Industrial Revolution: consumers, globalization and the end of mass production by Peter Marsh; Yale UP, 2012. 320 pp

Reviewed by Martin Earnshaw | 7 March 2013

Even the ghosts of England’s past oppose HS2 it seems. On 10th February 2013 the Observer ran a bizarre story about how HS2 might go through a historic battle site from the War of the Roses. The fact that the actual location of the battle is unknown is beside the point it seems.

It’s one more reason why it shouldn’t be built. It is churlish, though, to blame the nimbys. Even those building the line show little enthusiasm for the project. Robert Skidelsky writes that the 20 year time frame for building the line “displays an unbelievable lack of energy. Railways can be built much faster than this.”

The overwhelming sense that all of this engenders is a sluggish, slow motion decline of Britain compared to the ongoing dynamism of China and the East. When David Smith wrote The Dragon and the Elephant in 2008 he related the tale of a group of business leaders in which the fear was expressed that all of the West’s industries and services might go to China, leaving the West with nothing.

So it is heartening that there have been a number of recent books that counter this pessimism arguing that not only does the West have a niche in the economic world of the future, but that it is in prime position to exploit the opportunities that new technologies will afford us. Peter Marsh’s book The New Industrial Revolution has been acclaimed as the best of these contributions.

Most reviews have mentioned the example Marsh uses of the Westwind and Air Bearings companies in Poole. These companies provide air spindles, a small component used in the manufacture of circuit boards. Hardly anyone knows of these companies. Yet without them, the electronics industry in its current form wouldn’t exist. The New Industrial Revolution abounds with examples like this. The main point here is that manufacturing it not centralised in one place. With production diffused into a global network the most important components are made in a place where those with the skill and the know-how are available. Industry cannot simply flow to the cheapest country.

Marsh also traces the history of making things from its craftsman roots, through mass production, to what he calls ‘mass personalisation’ where goods are made just in time and to order. Much has been made of the possibilities of mass customisation, in particular 3D printing. For example Chris Anderson wrote a manifesto extolling the possibility that 3D printing and similar technologies could lead to a boom in small scale manufacturing. But mass personalisation has been a feature of industry for a long time. Marsh argues that far from the supposed proliferation of ordinary people starting up productive enterprises in their own back yards, mass personalised manufacturing is still likely be carried out by established companies who know what they are doing. This makes sense when you consider the logistical effort involved in procuring raw materials, making multiple components in multiple countries, assembling them into a product, and delivering them to customers. Delivering products in time and to order requires more complexity, not less. But Marsh sometimes appears to downgrade production in favour of design and marketing. He points out that some manufacturers outsource the actual business of making things allowing them to focus instead on design and marketing.

In one sense, of course, it is common sense that manufacturing is not just about making things. In the absence of any broader social relations, such as a market, production would just be socially useless work. But might it be a problem that making things is outsourced to faceless sweatshops while the important “brainwork” of design, branding, and service is done in the West? Marsh doesn’t perceive this as a worry. His reasoning is that since manufacturing is a global network, everything from cheap labour, to complex design and marketing will find its optimal place in the system. This conception, while it shows that the argument that Britain “does not make anything” is too crude, does not address the broader anxiety about the decline of industry. While Britain and the West might still make things, and do so more efficiently than in the past, there’s little escaping from the perception of a long term lack of dynamism in the broader economy.

The specialised manufacturing taking place in Poole and elsewhere does not employ many people. While numbers of people employed is no measure of efficiency, it does mean that that the majority of people have no relationship-  actual or discursive – with industry. Of course, even 40 years ago the majority of people did not work in manufacturing, but it was part of the national discourse.

Evan Davis in his Made in Britain argues that it is not surprising that manufacturing has disappeared off the radar in relation to services. Production in the West is so much more efficient these days that it is not surprising that it goes on out of sight. This in itself is not a bad thing. It is a sign of prosperity that we generally do not worry about where our food, clothes, energy or luxury goods come from. But despite this increased efficiency the UK does not seem to be a forward looking society, but rather one where even building a railway line seems to be a cause of existential angst. While the more cloistered settings of contemporary Western industry are not entirely to blame for this, the fundamental estrangement between the majority of people from the most important part of the economy does breed anxiety and cynicism about growth. While The New Industrial Revolution contains an excellent discussion about the future of industry, it does little to shift the terms of that debate from a purely technical one divorced from a broader consideration of the place of manufacturing in society.  To overcome contemporary pessimism and make the case for growth, however, will require finding a way to bring society back to the heart of the discussion of making things.

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The New Industrial Revolution: consumers, globalisation and the end of mass production by Peter Marsh is available at Amazon UK here.

Martin Earnshaw is chair of the Institute of Ideas Social Policy Forum