Labor Costs, Standard of Living, Artisans, Gunsmiths, Specifications, Interchangeability of Parts, Machine Tools and the Assembly Line

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 15th, 2012

Technology 101

Since the Dawn of Civilization we’ve Waged a War against High Labor Costs

Technology determines our standard of living.  The greater we develop technology the higher our standard of living.  Because the things that make our lives easier and more enjoyable come down in price as technology advances.  So that the great conveniences and comforts of life are available to all.  And not just for the amusements of a wealthy upper class.  For example, who owned and enjoyed the first automobiles?  It was the wealthy upper class.  Exclusively.  Until Henry Ford used all the technology of the day to reduce the price of a car so that a working man could afford and enjoy one.  Changing America forever.

Labor.  The cost of people making things.  This is the cost that holds back the standard of living.  The thing that made the comforts of life affordable only to the rich.  Since the dawn of civilization we’ve waged a war against high labor costs.  To find ways to allow people to create more for less.  The division of labor allowed specialization and a middle class.  Where artisans made things they could trade for other things.  But artisans were artists.  Each thing they made was one of a kind.  And it took time.  A single artisan could not operate at an economies of scale to bring unit prices down.  Which tended to keep their more labor-intensive works more costly and available only to the wealthy class.  And rulers of their civilization.

Great talent was going to waste.  And a great number of people were not living anywhere near as well as the few well-to-do.  To unleash this human capital, to make a better life available to anyone, they had to reduce these labor costs.  Figure out a way to make more for less.  And we took a giant step forward in this direction thanks to war.  One of the great drivers of technology.

Precision Machine Tools allowed the Interchangeability of Parts

Some of our first firearms were works of art.  Built by highly skilled artisans.  Gunsmiths.  Who carefully and painstakingly shaped, fitted and gently filed parts he created and assembled together into a working firearm.  Changed the way we fought wars forever.  They were expensive.  And not all that plentiful at first.  Because it took such a long time for a gunsmith to build one from scratch.  Who was always busy building new guns.  Or carefully and painstakingly repairing old ones damaged in battle.  Shaping, fitting and filing a replacement part into the old firearm and restoring it to working order.

Then someone got a bright idea.  Actually, a few had the same bright idea at various points in time.  If we could standardize these parts by building them to a set of specifications we could mass-produce these parts.  Building the same part over and over again, one after another, following a set of specifications as closely as possible.  And then take these uniform parts and assemble firearms out of them.  Because the parts were uniform they were interchangeable.  Any part could go into any gun.  A worker could just grab these interchangeable parts from piles of identical parts and slap them together into a finished firearm.  Furthermore, we could keep spare parts in our armories.  So we can easily repair parts damaged or broken in combat by simply replacing the broken part with a new part.  Without sending the firearm back to the manufacturer.

Of course, the interchangeability of parts was not possible without the precision machine tools provided.  At first artisans guided their hand tools with a trained eye.  Often securing the piece he was working in a vise and working the tool around the piece.  Machine tools allowed us to spin our work and used a constrained tool to shape it.  Or to constrain our work and apply a spinning tool to drill, cut or shape it.  Using machines to constrain our work allowed us to apply greater forces on our work.  Which advanced metal working.  And allowed us to manufacture things with complex shapes and demanding specifications.  Creating the many thousands of pieces that we ultimately assemble into a finished good.  Allowing us to build more for less.

Computer Controlled Machine Tools and Robots increased the Speed and Precision of Assembling Automobiles

The interchangeability of parts and machine tools led to the assembly line.  Where we assembled things in mass quantities.  From piles of interchangeable parts.  Then Henry Ford made the assembly line move.  Taking mass production to a new level.  Reducing the costs for one of the wealthy class’ most expensive toys.  The automobile.  Bringing labor costs down so far that the final selling price was inexpensive enough for the working man to afford.

Computer controlled machine tools increased the speed and precision at which we made these interchangeable parts.  And robots on the assembly line increased the speed and precision of assembling automobiles.  Which should have reduced the price of cars even further.  But they seem to be more expensive than they need be.  Making many cars today too expensive for the working man.  Making them toys for the rich and well-to-do again.  For technology has reduced costs everywhere in the assembly pipeline but one.  The final assembly labor costs.  Which should have plummeted in the advance of all this technology.  But they haven’t.  Because unions have removed these costs from market forces.  Keeping labor costs higher than market costs.  And in turn pushing the selling price of their cars higher than market prices.  Opening the door to Japanese competition in the Seventies.  And the Japanese stepped in.  Sold a lot of cars.  So many that they would one day even sell more than GM.  Where we come full circle.  One of the countries (the other being Nazi Germany) that changed American manufacturing by pulling it out of the Great Depression changed it once again.

During the war years of the Great Depression FDR set a wage ceiling.  He didn’t want employers paying workers too much.  A bit of a problem when you’re trying to hire the best workers.  So employers got creative.  And, instead, started offering benefits to get around that wage ceiling to attract the best workers.  Following World War II the wage ceiling was gone.  But the benefits lived on.  And are some of the most contentious issues discussed at contract negotiations with the United Automobile Workers (UAW).  Ultimately leading to the great legacy costs that led the Big Three (GM, Chrysler and Ford) to bankruptcy and government bailouts. 

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