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Science, Maths & Technology

How sustainable is mass production?

Updated Friday 15th August 2014

Miraculous inventions and engineering has enabled us to get our hands on cheap and effective products used in everyday life, but are the materials and methods used sustainable?

A group of men in the Ford factory assembly line 1913 Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons At the start of the first episode of Everyday Miracles, presenter Mark Miedownik visits a reconstructed house at the Black Country Museum and examines the objects in it. There are two huge differences from the average house today: far fewer objects and those few are individually, or at least hand made. These two are inextricably linked, because individually made objects will always cost more than mass produced ones, and so be less affordable.

Henry Ford introduced modern mass production with the Model T assembly line in 1908. Although the idea of an assembly line was nothing new – the British Navy had been making block (pulleys) that way for over a hundred years by then – but Ford took it to a new level of mechanical efficiency. The roles of individual workers were reduced to a simplified minimum so one man would fit a bolt, another would put the nut on and a third would tighten it.

This led to extremely efficient manufacturing, and Ford was able to drop the price of a Model T from $850 in 1909 to $440 in 1915, by which time around half a million per year were being sold. From an engineering and commercial viewpoint the Model T was a huge success, but in the long run the benefits are not quite so clear cut.

Although Ford factories, and the production lines which followed, offered much employment, it was monotonous drudgery, reducing humans to barely more than the assembly robots which have now largely replaced them.  It’s perhaps too easy to get romantic ideas about the moral benefits of creative work – plenty of people enjoy the hypnotic rhythm of repetitive tasks – but in the long run manual production lines were not sustainable sources of employment, and a modern car factory operates with a small fraction of the number of workers per car needed fifty or a hundred years ago. Creative commons image Icon By K. C. Gillette (US patent 775134, p. 1) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons under Creative-Commons license

As production volumes increased, too, the notion of consumer products as disposable became essential. There is a limited market for any product which lasts for ever, because eventually everybody who wants one has one. Desirable products with a finite lifetime are a much more attractive marketing proposition.

That was the genius of King Camp Gillette’s safety razor. The complicated bit to make, the handle, only needed to be sold once and would, during its lifetime, require hundreds or perhaps even thousands of blades. Overall the safety razor was much more expensive, per shave, than a cut throat razor which would last for many years with regular sharpening, but it was much easier and quicker to use, so the increased cost – spread out over time – was well worth it.

Razors with long-lasting handles and disposable blades are still sold in huge numbers, but a look round any supermarket or pharmacy will show that completely disposable razors have made a huge impact on the market. It’s even more convenient not to have to fiddle about changing a razor blade, or even fitting a cartridge, but this comes at a price.

Every disposable razor made requires a small amount of plastic – derived from petroleum – and almost every disposed-of razor ends up in landfill where, thanks to the amazing chemical stability of plastic, it will remain for thousands of years or more. Stainless steel razor blades corrode away – slowly – but plastic handles are with us forever, as are the disposable pens, disposable cutlery, disposable drinks bottles, disposable bags and disposable wrappings we’ve come to see as inevitable and essential.

It’s not just obviously disposable products which are through of as disposable. Where is your last mobile phone? Your last computer? When did you last have a pair of shoes repaired or darn a sock? Why bother, when all these things are cheaply and easily replaced – when they are disposable.

Creative commons image Icon Cezary p under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license

It’s a nice, comforting word. When we dispose of things they go away. They are taken care of. They are gone. We do not need to worry about them – but in fact we should.

Over the past hundred years, engineers and materials scientists have transformed our lives with a succession of Everyday Miracles – cheap, convenient and effective products which we barely even notice. The challenge now is to do it all again, to retain the cheapness, convenience and effectiveness but this time to do it sustainably. We can’t keep on dumping products into the ground after brief use and the natural resources simply are not there, or not affordably there – to allow us to keep making them.

Can it be done? It not only can be done – it will have to be done. It’s going mean rethinking how we make and use things, and it’s going to mean a lot of thought about how long they last and what we do with them – an exciting challenge for new generations of designers, engineers and materials experts.

 

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