Monday, 9 September 2013

Integrating 3 production modes

In the resource scarce future there is going to be a pressing need to properly integrate and optimize the various industrial modes available. An important point first; the question of "which mode is the best mode?" is the wrong question. Or more precisely,  the right question is "which mode is best in context X for the production of product Y?" and before you can answer that you have to answer what context X and product Y is and how the various modes interact with them. So if someone simply says "factory production is best" without context they are wrong, equally if they say "artisanal production is best" they are also wrong, unless they specify the context and product first. Values, how efficiency is defined, overarching goals (beyond making the product), capital available and so on are all important considerations, without them the context question can't be answered. So when I say a factory is efficient, I probably don't mean its efficient at making jobs (they normally aren't) or that they produce a range of products and benefits (varies), but they do benefit from economies of scale and in the context of a reliable transport system they're the most efficient production mode in terms of input/output. If the value of providing jobs is low, then a factory can make sense, if the value is high it probably doesn't. There is no one right answer, which is why it's important to integrate and optimize them all rather than focus on one mode.
An example of a contemporary mismatch is American warplane production. This was in an article I read a while ago, but its a good example of what not to do. American warplanes are made by specialized teams and everything is done to not use assembly lines and factory production modes (meaning they use a form of artisanal/workshop production). Since the point of warplane production is to produce warplanes cheaply and en mass, this isn't the best way to do it (it is however the best for the companies making the warplanes as they can earn more money, and for small elite air-forces that don't export planes). The US can get away with it because no one else had as advanced technology, they have a ridiculous amounts of money compared to everyone else and no one who they've fought could have built those factories. Mind you, now that China and Russia are becoming more powerful/technologically savy and the US is slowly decaying, this is less true case and will be less so in the future. All that stops it now is the ridiculous overcomplexity and other problems of modern warplanes, not necessarily a problem of future planes.

So lets categorize the different production models into something that we can talk about. Instead of doing the hard work myself I'm going to copy-paste the model from here.

"Now, the fundamental building blocks of industry in Clockwork Empires are these:

The Factory: A large building full of whirring machines and toiling workers. It takes in one set of “commodity” (in our design vocabulary, a generic name for any resource or good in CE’s economy) inputs and produces one particular commodity output. Factories require a lot of infrastructure, have very specific inputs and outputs, but they’re the most efficient means of production.

The Artisan: A home/shop run by one skilled craftsman, like the baker, butcher, or candlestick maker. (Note: Clockwork Empires will not contain candlestick makers as they’ve been made obsolete by scientifical clean-burning Perfectly Safe gaslamps.) Artisans are small and slowly produce specialized goods. And they will almost certainly be put out of business by the factories you get around to building. Yay, progress!

The Workshop: A sprawling, crude, generic production facility which cover a broad categories of industry (e.g. metals, woodworking, ceramics). A workshop take in a relevant set of commodity inputs and outputs any possible product that can be made with those goods, but far less quickly and efficiently than a Factory and somewhat less than an Artisan. The point of building a workshops is to fill in gaps in production chains, for example because you badly need some giant cogs, metal plates, and muskets but can’t afford to devote a factory to each separate commodity yet."

Now, the thing to remember here is that this is a bit crude. Factories don't necessarily have one specific output, one factory I visited in the Mekong Delta had the input of rice and through wood heat and human muscle produced rice paper roles and a local rice bar snack (it was quite nice), while the waste was used in construction. Mind you, that factory was quite close to being classified as a workshop, but the point stands. And the chemical industry, which could in the future expand with bio-refineries and the like, should be categorized in a very different way. And artisanal production doesn't only make specialized goods, it's just the main feature. But its a start and we can start looking at how this could work in the future.

Also, just to be clear, factories will exist in the future just as they have existed in the past. I have a book, "Delizia" about the history of Italian food and it mentioned that 400-600 years ago, there was a pasta factory in Naples (I believe it was water and muscle powered). Also the assembly line was used for the production of Venetian ships, most of the basic components of factories are old and don't require fossil fuels. And Industrialism was started by wind and water power, along with pedal, tidal and a few others in minor roles, and those power sources aren't going to disappear. In fact more power sources have been added, solar and biofuels (biogas is quite useful in that regard) for example, so the future existence of factories is not in question. Their role and relative importance is however. Workshops and artisans are the same, the question is not will they exist, but what role will they play and how important will they be. And in the future, 3d printing, hacker spaces or factor e-farms might lead to more categories or production modes, chances are they won't eliminate the existing categories but add to them and change the overall system. And if molecular/nano assemblers are built into a self-sustaining system (not very likely, but possible) then they'll add more.

So if all these various categories will exist, what is the best way to use them all at once for all the various contexts and situations future societies will face?

Now, this is a point I've mentioned before, but that's because it's an important point, that of the changes and benefits brought about by the metric system, which is a standardized and universal measuring system. Before it was almost impossible to have any two blacksmiths in the same town, let alone in different regions, make a part to the exact same dimensions. As long as the metric system stays, it would be trivial to have two blacksmiths in separate countries making parts to the same dimensions. So straight away the main obstacle of integrating any production system over a geographical area has disappeared completely, having a common standard and language (unless it has only one specific meaning, a unit of measurement isn't shared across languages or even neighboring areas). The main reason interchangeable parts didn't appear far earlier than they did was simply the lack of a standard measure which could ensure parts from one factory were the same as parts from another factory, not a lack of energy or other technical skills. The machines (like turret lathes) came later, you could easily have an interchangeable parts system with craftsmen who use hand tools now, it just isn't as worthwhile when you have factories to do so. Possibly instead with the metric system and a strong enough bureaucracy to manage sit you could easily have a system of interchangeable parts from craftsmen with hand tools, it just currently isn't worth it when we have modern factories and mass production

What this means it that not just the production side needs to be considered, but also the repair and logistics side. Also, it means that while specialized goods can come from far away, if certain guidelines are followed then local or regional capabilities could repair and maintain them. So, for example, most soldiers gun's could be produced in a factory, but when needed a local blacksmith or workshop could create replacement parts or cover shortfalls in production as needed. Since the different production modes aren't making things to different standards, they can make the exact same things if necessary for servicing or production. Additionally the end life of a product needs to be thought of and planned for, is it composted, recycled, used as raw material in another industry or are the broken parts simply replaced continuously. So the actual product isn't so important (it should still be considered) as much as the context the product exists in and is to be used in.

Military production more often favours the factory model, it even invented most of it (assembly lines and interchangeable parts started for military production), because the values are almost always (can vary for certain societies) a high throughput, cheap production cost per part and a high volume of production. Quality can vary depending on the force structure and military culture, in WW2 both America and Germany had the same problem with their torpedoes, Germany instantly fixed it while it took years before the Americans even acknowledged that the problem existed. Outside of feudal or very poor societies, and even then it's still likely, the bulk of military production will likely be done by factories. That doesn't mean that the other modes won't be used, most military bases will have workshops for repair and maintenance  and the use of local artisanal labour will certainly be common, but they won't be the most important mode of production for military goods.

Civilian goods and production systems vary a lot more, for the simply reason that the values and context vary. Do you want to save labour, energy or capital? How important is quality? What volume of production is needed? What are the political and regulatory implications? And so on. A village will likely only use artisanal production and maybe one workshop, but the goods it buys will likely be made in a factories or workshops, so transport is another issue, along with where the good is going to be used. Chances are most manufactured goods will be produced by all 3 modes and the mixtures will vary. For example, most tools could easily come from factories, most machines will come from workshops, while high quality versions of both are made by artisans. Or the basic tools (hammer, shovel etc) are made in factories while more complex ones (like drills) are made by artisans and workshops creating a variety of machines as needed.

The overarching industrial system of the future will be very complex.

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