Heroes in Manufacturing You’ve Probably Never Heard Of (and who mattered a lot more to your daily life than most folks you have heard of!)

It was Industry Week’s annual list of top manufacturing influencers that got me thinking about how most such lists are overwhelmingly folks in the news at the moment, that’s year or decade’s widely admired and reported companies, sexy products that consumers buy (non-consumer goods rarely make such lists although Industry Week is better than most and always well worth reading) and too often a recent arrival CEO given credit for other people’s work over decades in the company.

So here’s some other folks I’ve run across among literally thousands of manufacturing heroes we could and should learn useful lessons from (and most made the world a better place for most of it’s population which seems more important than starring in a few hit movies, recording some catchy songs, getting a home sex video viral on the Internet, etc.that determine so much celebrity-status these days.)

John Hall who did perhaps the greatest chunk of the work in figuring out standard parts/interchangeability at the Harper’s Ferry Arsenal over several decades, contributing greatly to “the American System of Manufacturing” that was the equivalent of the Toyota Lean Production System in worldwide impact and for over a century. Eli Whitney’s generally credited with this but gamed the demonstration that he’d figured out how to do what France’s St. Etienne Arsenal had been pursuing since the 1770’s and shown Thomas Jefferson on a tour there (so he assumed Whitney’d copied the French.) One of Hall’s protege’s Christian Sharps (of the rifle and derringer fame) used Hall’s machine tools concepts/designs, gages & jigs/fixture design, and approaches to help substantially develop Cincinnati’s machine tool industry.   Hall worked on solving interchangeability for almost 30 years in the malaria-ridden backwater community far from other manufacturers at Harper’s Ferry (a third of the workforce was down with malaria or other illness on an average workday as the complex was in a swampy area between two rivers to get the waterpower for the machine tools’ powering. )   The goal of rifles that didn’t require gunsmiths in every company of infantry or cavalry to hand-repair the rifles after every battle and long march drew the federal support for the project, longer than civilian efforts could have sustained,  and it was Hall who got and secured the funding despite considerable resistance from the old-style craftsmen at Harper’s Ferry as well as the cheap Congress and Army Ordnance Dept. The entire U.S. Army was only a few thousand regulars at this point, scattered across frontier posts in units of a few dozen mostly, so Hall’s 1819 breechloading rifle (yeah, the Army had a breechloader 40+ years before it’s generally credited and used these into the Civil War era despite mostly relying on much cheaper muzzle-loading muskets for militia and new recruits) gave a firepower advantage unmatched in the world at the time and drove the continued, frustrating investment in manufacturing excellence.)

Robert Lawrence (Robbins & Lawrence Factory in Vermont is already a National Monument) is a major player in Design for Manufacturability, Machine Tool development, as well as Q/C & interchangeable parts practices. Along with inventing what’s probably the first universal milling machine, that was adopted and built for others at the least, and impacting lathe design as well, Lawrence and men he trained and coached figured out to turn marginally functional inventors’ prototypes into superbly working mass production products incorporating many new technologies: Smith & Wesson revolvers, the .22 Rimfire Cartridge, Metallic Cartridges, the Winchester Lever Action Rifle, and the Sharps Breechloading Rifle.   The British industrial commission that toured America in the late 1850’s trying to figure out how the Americans were making such good stuff in quantity, naming the set of methods and technologies “The American System of Manufacturing”, met with and studied Robbins & Lawrence’s operations extensively…and immediately applied them to the Royal Enfield Arsenal and gradually to the English Industrial Revolution clusters at Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh, etc..   Precision parts for steam engine operation (locomotives, onsite power, ship’s turbines, lathes, steam hammers, hydraulics, etc. made higher pressure, higher revolutions per minute, longer performance, greater motive power, etc. all feasible, otherwise a steam engine’s usefulness is pretty limited.

Philip Armour, Armour Meat Packing, and his crew and competitors developed the moving assembly line that Ford’s credited with (Ford credited them and plant tours in Chicago as inspiring him.) Turning meatpacking from a very high skill, multi-year learning job to one that novices could pick up in hours by the dumbing down of the work to single function on an assembly line revolutionized the meatpacking industry and has for well over a century. Working out new supply chain methods for a highly perishable product through pioneering refrigerated boxcars and refrigerated warehouses to suddenly make many states’ pasturage support Chicago’s input needs and markets in the dense East able to buy beef and pork raised a thousand miles away.   That innovative arch rivals Oscar Mayer, John Morrell, Louis Swift, and other meatpackers growing from small local operations to dominant brands (even today a 150 years later which is rare in any industry) were also based in Chicago indicates that learning from each other, hiring away each other’s skilled managers and crew, drawing on the same equipment manufacturers for innovative designs, and learning from each other’s layouts and processes was incredibly critical.  But it’s always far easier to credit one individual in an industry with everything hundreds worked out in that industry.

Don’t recall his name but the fellow who invented the shipping container is hugely important, an article in American Heritage’s short-lived business history magazine “Audacity” profiled him and explained how that cut freight costs by over 50% and radically changed the viability and scale of international trade.   Before the shipping container it was routine to order 200-300% more goods than you really needed as that much of the load would be pilfered, destroyed, damaged, or lost enroute.   A sturdy container that was never opened between factory shipping dock and final customer made a huge difference that ports and warehouses long dependent on pilferage revenues among it’s crews could admit publicly to.   It also made it much harder for customs officials and border guards to help themselves as well, saving perhaps 15-30%.   Moving cargo from one transportation mode to another, i.e. ship to wagons/trucks or railroad to river/canal barge adds considerably labor cost but also exposes the cargo to the rain, snow, external temperatures, etc. that added both protective packaging costs (and for packages small enough for a man to handle himself) and considerable damage opportunities.

Frank Gilbreth, the motion studies pioneer, is especially unsung and heavily stolen from.   Frederick Taylor got many of his best ideas stealing from Gilbreth and getting them wrong, a legacy we still struggle with.  Gilbreth was a commercial building contractor who was applying “lean thinking” in the 1890’s with the result of being a third faster than his competitors in getting a quality, brick building up and in retaining the best skilled workmen by designing their work ergonomically based on photography and early motion picture camera work meticulously tracking and refining their movements, strains, injuries, tiring, quality lapses, etc.-and then designing equipment and worksites to fit his workmen…getting 300-500% higher output per day from them and absolute loyalty (with pay based on productivity too.) Gilbreth’s friend Frank Gantt (Gantt Charts) was greatly influenced by how Gilbreth kept complex construction projects on precise timetables. Gilbreth consulted with companies on productivity internationally for some decades, his wife Lillian was one of the first women to earn a PhD in the U.S., in Psychology, and her work in their consulting firm resulted in her being the first woman inducted into the Industrial Engineers Society.  If you’ve ever read the book or seen the 1948 movie with Clifton Webb, “Cheaper by the Dozen”, it’s a lively memoir written by Frank and LiIlian Gilbreth’s children and knowing the parents’ backgrounds (unclear in the book and movie) explains a lot as they were international management consultants by that point.  Gilbreth’s work with Edison and before that Eadward Muybridg’s high speed photography considerably influenced early motion picture technology and initiates the industrial training film and using video/film for field and lab research.

Herman Hollerith for taking punch cards from a production machine control technology of the late 1770’s (loom’s weaving patterns) to crunching data in the Hollerith machines he built first for the U.S. Census with his little company becoming the core of IBM. So an impact on computing, handling large workforces-payroll processing was the first commercial application, and also on numerically-controlled production tools. We talk about Steve Jobs way too much and real computing pioneers far too little.

Vannevar Bush built MIT’s engineering school into a world leader, oversaw most of the U.S.’s science and engineering work during World War II, handbuilt in his basement the two computers in the 1930’s for the Navy to crack the Japanese codes, cofounded Raytheon, directly fathered the Internet, DARPA, Boston’s Route 128 Tech Corridor, National Science Foundation, and the Federal Labs system, oversaw the Manhattan Project, and impacted many fields. His first grad student, Fred Terman, built Stanford’s engineering rep and Silicon Valley.

Tom Edison for the industrial research lab along with creating more industries than anyone I can think of? Industries, not companies although the direct companies became giants such as General Electric, ConEd, RCA, etc.

Pratt & Whitney? As machine tool makers and significant innovators they underlie so much of what can be manufactured since the 1850’s days as suppliers to Sam Colt, even before you get into the impacts of their turbines, engines, etc. on so many other products and industries. People forget they were inventors rather than later financiers slapping their name on a company.

Charles Kettering? Along with founding AC Delco, just about all automobile electrical and electronic components trace back to his pioneering work (and why General Motors bought him and built a whole division for that literally backyard workshop guy from Ohio.) Those early systems for vehicles translated quickly to aircraft avionics (think about planes without lights, radios, instrumentation, radar, GIS, heat, pressurized cabins, etc.), locomotives, portable consumer electronics, etc. and helped make American cars the world standard in technology for decades.   Kettering solved how to start the car’s engine from inside the car, the electric self-starting ignition, instead of manually turning a crank at the front of the car which revolutionized driving, particularly meaning women could start their own cars.   He developed electric headlights (instead of carbide or oil lamps like a horse carriage used) and the first radios in cars but these power demands forced him to work on the less glamorous components endlessly to generate sufficient electrical power to run them.   Famous then, now we mostly just hear of the Sloan-Kettering Institute in medical research (Sloan was head of GM when Kettering was found and recruited) but for many years he was among America’s most famous inventors.

Henry Leland? Viable automobile and truck engines probably trace more to this guy who was trained in gunmaking and measuring instrumentation manufacturing and brought quality control/precision machining to the automaking industry starting with a contract to make engines for Ransom Olds that was cancelled for the much higher quality Leland engines shaking apart Olds’ chassises with the increased torque compared to Old’s much sloppier engine supplier’s torque. Leland founds Cadillac and turns it into the world’s largest car maker for a few years, before he’s bought out by General Motors to teach quality control to rest of the company.   Unhappy with how GM geared up for WWI production he went to his original contract engineer/freelancer on the first Cadillac, Henry Ford, and started Lincoln Motor Car Company with Henry who’d learned a lot from Leland and done rather well himself.   While Leland was running Cadillac before World War One, it’s reputation for world-class quality led Daimler Benz (Mercedes) to send it’s production experts to Leland’s Cadillac factory for weeks of study and benchmarking that they implemented on Mercedes Benz production.    The Cadillacs’ manufacturing excellence led to their touring cars being what the Army used in both the Mexican Expedition in 1916 and in France 1917-1919 as the equivalent of “jeeps” or “Hummers” and using their engines for the experimental American tanks, a pair of V-8’s, was well along by 1918 under the young Army Lt. assigned to tank development, Dwight Eisenhower.

William Knudsen, who I hadn’t heard of before Arthur Herman’s new book “Freedom’s Forge,” worked out much of both Ford and General Motors’ mass production methods and then was tasked with figuring out and putting together the production capacity and new technologies implementation to gear up for and then win World War II.   Overseeing over a thousand new factories, tens of millions of novices trained in high tech manufacturing for completely new products and materials in brand new facilities in communities without a manufacturing base, and fixing everything from design problems in tanks to materials shortages.   The more you know about the abysmal job America did in gearing up for World War I, the more impressive Knudsen is (and how much credit he should get for ending the Great Depression instead of the politicians or the war itself.)    Knudsen helped get over a thousand new factories built, endless new technologies and materials implemented in mass production in less time than a routine, minor product change typically takes to implement, and got quality up to where it needed to be.   The Germans’ overly complex tanks (designed mostly by Volkswagen’s Ferdinand Porsche, now mostly known for sports cars a buddy who was a Porsche service manager said still had lots of troubles) hindered them enormously (blitzing France was made possible with the large number of better quality tanks they’d captured in Czechoslovakia and French tanks were more reliable as well.)  The Russian’s vaunted T-34 tank had such poor manufacturing quality it has an average of 40 hours of useful life before needing to be scrapped or substantially rebuilt (same for the Soviet-built fighters and bombers, 40 hours of functional life or flight-time.)

People who make many and seminal changes in manufacturing rarely get much media coverage, because it’s so “boring”, and takes many years to figure out and implement. Too often it’s whoever happens to be the most visible CEO at the time when success is noticed and often with the best-oiled publicity machine to take credit for it.

Henry Ford and Steve Jobs would be examples who are credited for many accomplishments of other companies, other key team members, and other’s ideas. Learning from the wrong guys really confuses us about how new ideas are developed and implemented on the factory floor, engineering, and the head office. I read a lot of business histories because they almost always conflict considerably with what I’d been told about the company and industry as well as contradict a lot of the management dogma of the moment. James Worthy’s history of Sears under Robert E. Wood, who developed his manufacturing suppliers into more robust independent companies (unlike some current models of extracting price concessions until the supplier is destroyed) is especially intriguing-his purchasing agents were required to learn the suppliers’ businesses and be active partners, like Deming recommends but very few PA’s do.

Jon Gertner’s new book on AT&T’s Bell Labs, “The Idea Factory”, is certainly overhauling and changing what I thought about where much of the electronics and communications industry have come from along with quality control practices of their Deming & Juran (looks like it was figuring out how to make vacuum tubes that really advanced QC.)

The heroic challenges our best doers and thinkers in manufacturing truly dwarf what entertainers and athletes have to overcome and master so it’s frustrating the more you learn how much young people’s attention is pointed to the most trivial accomplishments and shortest career paths for the lucky few.   In some states still 40% of the workforce is in manufacturing while less than 1% of college athletes turn professional and that’s for an average of 3 years while the percentage who make it in the performing arts makes the pro athlete route look likely.

Al can be reached at aljonesrdo@bresnan.net.   Still sorting through 8,000 comments-most of them spam.


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