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Motorhead Memo: Mass Interchange

By Kip Woodring

Motorhead-web

Here’s a road I might wish I hadn’t gone down… the historic concept of mass production. First of all, there’s a sort of chicken and egg thing surrounding the fundamental issue. Traditionally, required elements for mass production, as we’ve been taught are, first, a mass market and, second, a massive workforce… or is it the other way around? A century ago when Ford pioneered the “car for the multitudes” nobody realized they needed a car at the time. Where’s the mass market in that? On the other hand, once they did come around, it was all ol’ Henry could do to find enough of a workforce to keep up with demand. Same thing with the iPhone, actually. Before either of those, it was ordinance… the kind you fight a war with. The first viable examples of what we’d recognize as mass production were seen in the Springfield Armory as far back as 1795! Although it wasn’t a mass of civilians clamoring for the rifles made at the armory, it was a mass market of sorts in the form of the U.S. government, which then, as now, seemed to have a fascination with staving off the enemy, real or imagined. That took guns… lots of ’em! So, it’s really an excellent example of building lots, with “guaranteed demand” of lots! Finding a need and filling it, or creating something never seen before and planning on a demand materializing. Either way, the essence of mass production still boils down to being able to manufacture by means of unskilled labor. The first leg under the stool, if you will.

The second is most probably the rate of production. The most successful companies figure out how to provide as many as you want… and perhaps a bit more. Exactly how this is accomplished has always been something of a mystery to me, kind of an elves and the shoemaker deal. But many is the enterprise that failed with the “million-dollar idea” because it couldn’t figure out ways to make the product fast enough or well enough. Again using Springfield Armory as the template, if you attain the market and the workers, it still takes the hourly wage, the assembly line, and (wait for it)… interchangeable parts! (Thank you, Eli Whitney… you fake!) All of these elements came into existence over time; none were really there from the get-go, and that much you probably learned in school, studying the Industrial Revolution and/or American History. But the tricky part, the part you didn’t learn about in school, is that those parts weren’t so interchangeable after all… and sometimes still aren’t. So, needless to say, interchangeable parts came last in the evolution of industrial mass production. The third leg under the stool of manufacturing.

Curious term, “manufacturing.” Comes from the Latin manu factum, which means “made by hand!” Certainly, that was how it started, but today the best way to build anything seems to be to reduce human involvement to a minimum. We are a society accustomed to things made by computer-controlled machines cranking out components. If there’s any handwork in mass production today it comes in the assembly of components into a complete device, mechanism, commodity or whatever you want to call the finished product. Let me tell you a quick story:

Eli Whitney, who usually gets credit for the concept of interchangeable parts, was a fake. In 1808, he wanted a fat government contract so much that he claimed he could manufacture a large number of guns with interchangeable parts! His claim seemed plausible, since he let Congress examine a few carefully selected muskets. The congressmen took the muskets apart, piled up all the parts, stirred them around and then put the muskets back together. Since they still worked, Congress gave Whitney the contract for 10,000 muskets. A skilled craftsman can slowly produce a limited number of parts possessing fairly close tolerances—and this is exactly how Eli Whitney was able to fool the U.S. government. However, there is simply no way to rapidly duplicate precise parts by hand. Only machinery can rapidly turn out identical pieces and this form of technology did not exist when Whitney won the contract. (This is why Whitney delivered the muskets years late, and none of them had interchangeable parts!)

The real father of interchangeability was Marc Brunel who came to the rescue of the British navy during the Napoleonic wars, by designing machines to build identical wooden blocks for the rigging on British ships. Talk about finding a need! These blocks made up the pulleys to operate the sails on warships. Starting as replacements for all the thousands that were shot away in combat, they were soon standardized and “regulation” for the nation that ruled the seas. Steam engines automated the entire process of manufacturing the pulley blocks. The 45 separate machines that performed 22 processes could turn out standardized blocks in three sizes, and every piece was uniform and could be used to replace a defective part of the same-sized block.

Not only was a superior block produced, but the labor savings were enormous. Where 110 men had worked previously to produce a limited number of blocks of varying quality, 10 men using the new machinery were capable of producing 130,000 blocks a year. Bingo!

But building identical blocks of wood with steam power was just the start. By the time the U.S. Civil War was raging, not only were weapons and sail-handling pulleys comprised of interchangeable bits, so were scads of other things—most importantly, perhaps, pocket watches! Why pocket watches? Well, if blocks gave us interchangeability in wood, by then we also had guns in metal… and watches in miniature. Watches were made to a scale hitherto unimaginable with over 200 individual parts made by specialized machinery, but still selectively assembled by hand. They were nowhere near as accurate as they would become by the late 1890’s and most didn’t even have a seconds hand! (Who worried back then about being seconds late to anything?) That only became an issue after we got time zones and train wrecks! Yup, in the 1880’s there over 50 railroads running, tens of thousands of miles of track and no uniform timekeeping nationwide. A bad accident involving two trains on the same track at the same time because of bad timekeeping changed everything! For our purpose, it changed watches into an extremely accurate device, the famous “railroad” watch! Call it technological trickle-down, but expertise acquired in watchmaking with myriad, interchangeable parts, made to such levels of precision, required even more precise machines to manufacture the parts! Many of those machines (in both armaments and horological fields) required precision tooling! Precision tooling required a new invention (by Carl Edward Johansson) called “gauge blocks” (or Jo blocks in his honor) that could enable watch levels of precision (0.001mm) to be applied to things like guns and… well… vehicles.

Enter Henry Martyn Leland! A perfectionist’s perfectionist, Henry Leland was born in 1843, and learned his business (precision interchangeable parts) in the munitions industry. The man was known to carry a micrometer in his coat pocket at all times, and at a consultation with a car manufacturer, whipped it out and measured the bearings that were failing in the cars. He then informed the auto tycoon that his cars were screwing up because the bearings weren’t within dimension, so they would fail early. Not long afterwards, Leland decided he could do better, and at the ripe age of 56, decided to get into automobile manufacturing… precisely. He did it a couple of times, actually, the first one called Cadillac and the second Lincoln. You might recall the prestigious Dewer Trophy was given to Cadillac in 1908. Three Cadillacs were driven to Brooklands race track outside London, England, driven 30 miles on the race track, torn completely apart by members of the Royal Automobile Club, mixed into a big pile of over 2,450 pieces, reassembled at random, then driven another 500 miles! That would be pretty impressive today… it was flabbergasting 107 years ago! How’d old Henry Leland pull it off? Well, let’s just say the perfectionist had taken delivery of the first set of Jo blocks in American automotive history the year before! Where there’s a will and a way… there are results!

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., there were these four country boys who wanted to build a motorcycle…

To be continued…

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