Building Boeing’s Dreamliner used 16,000 gigabytes-worth of information, equivalent to a library of 16 million books, according to Peter Marsh’s new book The New Industrial Revolution: Consumers, Globalization and the End of Mass Production. He quotes one historian’s comment about the original Industrial Revolution: “About 1760, a wave of gadgets swept over England.” A wave of gadgets is now sweeping over the world. The general purpose technology of the microprocessor and the other innovations it has enabled has launched us into another industrial revolution – indeed, the history of capitalism is one damn technological revolution after another.
The book sets out these successive waves, but its interest lies in the mass of examples Marsh gives to illustrate the thesis of a new revolution. He has been covering manufacturing around the world for many years as a Financial Times journalist, and has a more or less unrivalled range of experience. One of his supplementary arguments is that manufacturing is of vital importance for economic growth because it is the route for innovation to enter everyday life. His description of the specifics of how companies actually innovate is very interesting. The organisation of the manufacturing process is one key, and one chapter looks at the Toyota Production System in some detail. Not only did this famously introduce the concepts of just-in-time and constant improvement, it also enabled huge variety by the switching of standard components – Marsh calculates that out of 8.6 million units made by the company in one year, there are 1.7 million variants.
Another element is specialisation in specific gatekeeper technologies. Industrial clustering is as old as industry, and Marshall famously described the role of know-how in explaining clusters. However, many older clusters are explained by the location of resources or by transport. Knowledge clusters are the new norm. Marsh’s example is Poole in Dorset, which turns out – who knew? – to be the world centre for the manufacture of air spindles. These are small electric motors whose shaft rotates on an air bearing rather than a metal bearing. They are essential for making circuit boards. In 2010, two firms in Poole accounted for 80% of the world’s supply. One has a factory in China as well as Dorset, but the other does not, and both have their R&D in their southern English home. We tend to talk down UK manufacturing and, heaven knows, we need more of it; but this story chimes with my own experience of there being many uniquely innovative and productive specialist manufacturers in the UK. Here, as another example, is a encouraging tale about the revival of the Lancashire cotton industry – my parents and aunties and uncles worked in the old version; Lancashire Cotton 2.0 is a remarkable story.
Between 2006 and 2010 the UK slipped from 5th to 10th in the world league table of manufacturing nations. It wasn’t alone in this slide – China, S Korea, Brazil and India have also pushed France down the rankings with us. But Italy is hanging on with a slightly larger share of world manufacturing output, and apart from the US, Japan and Germany have substantial shares. What lessons do the success stories hold? Marsh highlights scientific and technical education, R&D spending, the accumulation of specialist knowledge – including practical know-how – in niche areas (a highly effective barrier to entry by new competitors), added-value activities such as design or customer support surrounding the manufacturing, and strategic thinking about supply chains.
The redrawing of the manufacturing map into complex global supply chains is another interesting part of his account. Indeed, one of the main messages I took away was the massive interdependence of the various countries’ manufacturing industries. You can see its visible expression in the marvellous atlas of economic complexity. Marsh does not go on to consider the implications of this interdependence, which – for all the industrial upheaval and job losses – has been the source of huge gains in productivity and prosperity over the decades. On the other hand, it is also a vulnerability. China needs those two factories in Poole to continue improving living standards there. We need other factories sited outside Bangkok or in Shenzen just as much. There has been less of a move to protectionism than one might have feared in the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis, but if we do now see a turning away from globalization, the implosion of living standards around the world will be absolutely catastrophic.
The book does not go in for this kind of analysis, however. It is a book of reportage, stuffed with interesting examples that illustrate the history of manufacturing and its present, globalised state. I love the kinds of facts it offers – in 2010, six out of every 10 large crawler excavators of the kind needed for big construction projects went to Chinese customers (they are made by Komatsu of Japan and Caterpillar of the US but these manufacture them in China). There’s more on every page. This book is a great companion to Made in Britain by Evan Davis. Wearing global rather than national spectacles, it offers the same policy lessons for the UK or for any country needing to ensure the long term health of manufacturing industry.