In a series of articles, we are taking a look back at the industrial revolutions of the past to glean lessons from history as the Fourth Industrial Revolution gathers pace. Part one released in December introduced the series and in this article, we now look towards the first revolution.

Handmade to Machine-based Manufacturing

The First Industrial Revolution began in Britain in the late 1700s. It was a period of disruptive economic, technological, social and cultural change, and spread quickly to Europe, the USA and beyond during the first half of the next century. 

To say that the world was transformed would be an understatement. The changes in manufacturing, shifting from hand-crafting goods to the use of machines was accompanied by many fundamental new manufacturing techniques and a flourishing of infrastructure and trade.

The Spinning Jenny

The Spinning Jenny

The first major changes were in the mechanisation of the textile industry driven by ingenious inventions, none more famous than the Spinning Jenny. Productivity rose markedly, generating wealth which started a domino effect through many industries. Canals, shipping, roads and railway networks also expanded rapidly, increasing the practicality of trading goods over longer distances. 

Early Mass Production

In 1803, a complex pulley was needed in vast numbers to fulfil a large Royal Navy contract as the Napoleonic Wars were in full swing. Marc Brunel, an early pioneer of machine tool technologies developed a complex sequence of 22 separate machining processes to make the pulley in multiple sizes. His system was a huge success. In 1806 he went on to father a moderately famous son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel who would write of these processes:

Ten men, by the aid of this machinery, can accomplish with uniformity, celerity and ease, what formerly required the uncertain labour of one hundred and ten.

Complex Pulleys made by machine tools

Complex Pulleys made by machine tools

Conformance checking of goods was no longer just a matter for buyers checking the quality and value of purchases, it became central to the emerging concept of product interchangeability. 

If the essential characteristics of, let’s say, a bolt can be specified in a standard or universal manner, a buyer can realistically buy bolts from Sheffield, London or beyond, and have confidence in the parts that they will receive. Of course, there also needs to be methods of assuring that bolts bought from different sellers adequately meet those requirements.

The cultural and social changes of the First Industrial Revolution were equally enormous. The rate of population growth was unprecedented. Several historians have suggested that all of human history can be summarised as, 

…everything had been terrible forever, then the industrial revolution happened, and the average quality of life finally started to improve.

There is of course a valid debate about the pros and cons of industrialisation and there is an attractive, if perhaps romantic view that life was better in simpler, pre-industrial times. It is worth noting that the “simple life” we sometimes crave tends to include the technologies, trade, wealth, and health that were born out of the industrial revolution. 


Echoes of Industrialisation

The key moments of industrialisation are worth remembering because they are still so relevant today. When INSPHERE developed HYPERSCAN, our automated inspection cell, its purpose was directly linked to the concepts of product interchangeability – even the most complex aerospace components need simple, reliable assurances that they conform to specification and will function as intended. 

Our machine tool verification system BASELINE would have been as valuable in 1850 as it is today – if a machine tool can be rapidly and efficiently checked, then machining confidence increases, and scrap is reduced.

The drivers for efficient manufacture may have their roots two centuries ago but they are still vital today, and they will continue long into the future.

This article is the second part of a series written by INSPHERE’s Chief Operating Officer, Craig Davey.