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Redefining Manufacturing: The History of the Industry

Manufacturing, even in its most basic form, has been around for centuries. From the first piece of paper that was produced evolving all the way to the innovative technology that we have today. This is a space that is continuously changing and, as such, the philosophy of change is close to manufacturers’ hearts.

In this three-part series, we will dive deep into the history of manufacturing to show where we have come from and also the transition to where we are now. At the height of today’s current manufacturing is 3D printing. The idea of creating something from nothing and turning manufacturing into a process that is both quick and easy to use – that is evolution.

This first post will discuss the history of manufacturing and Geek philosophers who were close to this movement. The second section will highlight the changing metal 3D printing industry and the final post will illustrate the current market and the importance of high speed printing.

The philosophy of change

The ancient Greek philosophers, Heraclitus in particular, speculated that all was change, and that there was nothing permanent or stable. There were just moments of apparent stability, which quickly evaporate. He gave expression to this by saying, “you cannot step into the same river twice.” Later philosophers, such as Plato, tried to develop a physical theory which allowed for some limited stability in reality. Plato developed an atomic theory based on geometric shapes, and argued that atoms come together and stay together in new shapes for limited periods. To a very large extent, Greek philosophy is about how to explain change and whether eternity was possible.

One major technology change occurred among the Greeks in late antiquity – the invention of paper. It was made in Egypt by bashing together the stems of papyrus plants until they formed a rough kind of paper, and this stuck together because of the paste-like substance in the stems. Once people had something to write on, they did write, and there was an incredible explosion of documentation.

This led to the development of manuscripts and huge libraries such as the library of Alexandria, which became the scientific centre of the ancient world. People began to write wills, shopping lists, invoices, letters to each other, and their own works of history or scientific treatises. The wealthy had Greek slaves, who would take down the dictation on papyrus sheets. Cicero had a Greek slave Tiro, who developed shorthand and was able to record entire conversations verbatim using his symbols – for example, he invented the &.

The production of papyrus, or paper, became a huge industry for Alexandria, and led to exports around the ancient world. The Roman Empire, which kept immaculate records of the citizenry, court cases, taxes and so on, based itself on this discovery.

Prior to that one could only write on parchment or stone, i.e. inscriptions, and laws or public announcements were promulgated this way. Imagine the slowness and the cumbersome nature of this communication. If the Greek city-state wanted to advertise for a doctor, for example, it would go up on a stone which would be publicly displayed, and somehow news of it got around the ancient world. Writing was very limited as the other alternative was parchment, dried animal skin, which was very difficult to work with.

Paper leads to the future

About a century before the boom in paper production, Socrates in the Phaedrus talked about the invention of writing and described it as a pharmakon, which in Greek means a drug or potion which may both harm and heal. He argued, now that writing had been invented and become widespread, there were obvious benefits, but this would also lead to the atrophy of memory and the deskilling of the human memorising capacity. People would no longer be able to memorise and recite things over many hours, as was the case in his own time. He was likely right – just as people today complain about the way in which calculators have de-skilled students, in that they are no longer able to calculate mentally.

Unfortunately, Socrates was sentenced to death in 399 BC by the Athenian assembly for introducing “ideas that were new.” We know that change is constant, but we don’t like it and mostly we can’t understand it. Above all, we find it hard to imagine the future without leaning heavily on the present. Socrates had a profound insight into the disruptive technology which he saw happening around him, but not many others easily grasp the nature of change, the nature of the disruption, and what the future will look like.

In our next post, we will discuss how this philosophy relates to the 21st century and technology, specifically.