Although mass production drove down prices and increased access for many goods, it also launched an era of conformity. “Engineering is the art of compromise,” says the author, “and the big compromise in this strategy was customization.” But new technologies are allowing engineers to innovate as well as scale production.
The key element in the engineering of the industrial revolution was standardization. Epitomized by Henry Ford’s “A customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black,”
Today, however, a new revolution is afoot. Key technologies are emerging that promise to undo the big engineering compromise of the industrial revolution. No longer will we have to choose between efficiency of production and customization. We can have our mass-produced cake and still eat it in our choice of flavor, texture, and style. The artisan is re-emerging, and this time with scalability superpowers.
The long road of automation and standardization that began in the industrial revolution has led us to a new and exciting juncture. When technology finally manages to eliminate the manual labor step altogether, the engineer re-dons the artisan hat.
In the post-revolution world, every product can truly be a unique and beautiful snowflake. And, like snowflakes, the same hyper-efficient industrial-era processes and standards can be used to produce each distinct item.
It is human nature to hang onto the things that we have worked hard to achieve, but in order to grow as engineers we have to be ready to let go of hard-won skills and elevate our thinking as soon as the underlying tools and components improve, eliminating the limitations that forced us to develop those skills in the first place.
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