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Peering through the Covid clouds

Above: Inside a Rolls-Royce engine plant - a potent symbol of 21st century production

Recent books related to manufacturing provide a sense of where the world is heading

There are just six basic manufacturing techniques, says Christoph Roser: cutting, material transformation, joining, coating, moulding, and forming. Explore the evolution of these techniques – together with how they are organised and controlled – and you explain how production has shaped our lives over the millennia. This is the core idea behind Roser’s Faster, Better, Cheaper in the History of Manufacturing, one of a clutch of recent books that examine different aspects to making things against the background of wider changes in society and politics.

At a time when Britain and other countries are trying to recover from the social and economic fallout of coronavirus, manufacturing could play a big part in whatever rebound occurs. Particularly for young people contemplating working in manufacturing and engineering – and for those who influence them, such as parents and teachers – these books may provide guidance.

In recent years writers interested in engineering and technology have had plenty to dig into. The digitisation of manufacturing is a new term that has generated attention. It is best considered as a series of techniques including 3D printing, expanded connectivity (the internet of things) and clever software (artificial intelligence). Added to this are ideas outside the digital sphere, in materials, bio-engineering and new techniques for generating and storing energy.

New businesses have emerged in sectors from alloys to automobiles and from semiconductors to surgical instruments. In the background are big political and social shifts: China’s emergence as a global power, the US’s relative decline, the threat of accelerating climate change and the rapidly expanding influence of technology giants such as Google.

The books consider different aspects of manufacturing – sometimes from a broad business or historical perspective. While no single volume will give the reader a complete view of what manufacturing has to offer, taken together they impart valuable insights into how this activity has evolved and where it might be going.

What follows are reviews of 10 recent books on themes related to manufacturing, together with descriptions of 10 previous works that stand out for their exploration of this activity.

Mapping the millennia

Faster, Better, Cheaper in the History of Manufacturing: From the Stone Age to Lean Manufacturing and Beyond, by Christoph Roser, CRC Press, £45.42, 409 pages

Of all the books reviewed, Christoph Roser’s volume comes closest to being a definitive guide. The German production engineer has set himself a big task: to map the path of production since the stone age and on the back of this tell the reader where it will go in the future. The book bristles with quirky anecdotes involving people and ideas. Readers will find much that is new and stimulating. Roser’s idiosyncratic writing style sometimes jars. His choice of subjects to delve into – at one point he diverges into the episodes of cannibalism in 1950s China –is occasionally unsettling. Nonetheless the book deserves to be widely read, although the price tag is unfortunate.

The giant plants that have shaped the world

Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World, by Joshua Freeman, WW Norton, £12.99, 427 pages

US history professor Joshua Freeman has produced a thoughtful and intricately researched book that considers the evolution of the factory as a force for wealth creation and employment. The sections on the growth of industrial centres such as Detroit and Magnitogorsk are impressive. Freeman is as interested in people as technology and his work is strong on the social aspects to the industrial system. China has a big mention in the shape of a focus on Foxconn, the huge electronics firm responsible for much of Apple’s production. A weakness of the book, however, is its focus on giant factories. This form of manufacturing is in decline as the emphasis has swung towards smaller facilities connected to similar places either close by or scattered worldwide. How much Freeman recognises this is hard to discern.

The ideas of the future

Make, Think, Imagine: Engineering the Future of Civilisation, by John Browne, Bloomsbury, £10.99, 409 pages

John Browne’s Make, Think, Imagine is a satisfying description of a wide range of engineering and manufacturing ideas that look likely to play a big part in shaping our world over the next 50 years. The former BP chief executive – and his assistant Ben Martynoga on whom Browne relied for much of the research – interviewed an impressive cadre of engineers and scientists including some of the top thinkers in their fields. As a result, he covers a variety of disciplines from writing instruments to genetic engineering and from rocketry to robots. Browne’s overall tone is upbeat. “Provided the forces of ignorance are kept in check,” he writes, “engineering will continue its work: solving problems, building civilisation and delivering dreams.”

Globalisation in reverse

From Global to Local: The Making of Things and the End of Globalisation, by Finbarr Livesey, Profile Books, £12.99 ,210 pages

Full of ideas and questions (and some answers) this is a prescient and valuable book. From his vantage point as a senior academic at Cambridge University, Livesey explores how far the much-discussed globalisation of the past 30 years is likely to go into reverse. Technologies such as 3D printing and advanced robotics make it easier for countries with high labour costs to do more manufacturing at home, rather than distribute it to nations where labour is cheaper. In many countries – including the UK and US – political tendencies have been reinforcing the notion of making production more self-sufficient. Livesey has an effervescent writing style. The reader is left wanting to know his reaction to events since the book was published. Sadly, we will never know. Livesey died in September 2019 from cancer, aged 47.

Making a connection

Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up, by Philip Howard, Yale University Press, £16.48, 320 pages

The internet of things will be one of the most powerful political and economic toolsever created. It will draw information every millisecond from billions of devices as diverse as kitchen toasters, heart pacemakers and aircraft engines. How this ocean of data is collected and disseminated will become increasingly important, not just for the companies that build the devices but for the ordinary people whose lives will be bound up in the information. The “pax technica” in the title of Philip Howard’s book is his term for the regulatory framework that he thinks should evolve to govern how the internet of things operates. The framework would ensure the system is used for positive purposes (such as pooling information to improve people’s health or knowledge of environmental pollution) rather than to exert political control or give businesses unfair commercial advantages.

A new take on 20th century Britain

The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History, by David Edgerton, Allen Lane/Penguin, £10.59, 682 pages

Manufacturing plays a central part in historian David Edgerton’s nuanced review of British economic and social life. Among his goals is to demolish several tenets that he says are myths. The country was never the staggering world leader in innovation that many assume. Equally, Britain’s “decline” as a manufacturing nation from its strong position as recently as the 1950s has been consistently overstated. The shift in the UK’s performance relative to others can be explained, Edgerton says, largely by the inevitable acceleration in the economic and technological development of poorer countries. The narrative ends around the year 2000 with many uncertainties relating to the country’s global position still unresolved. Even so, Edgerton’s provides a firmer basis for understanding the UK’s current manufacturing prowess than most of the accounts we have become used to.

A lament for UK industry

Tragedy and Challenge: An Inside View of UK Engineering’s Decline and the Challenge of the Brexit Economy, by Tom Brown, Troubador, £19.99, 327 pages

If Edgerton’s view of the state of British engineering and manufacturing lacks drama, Tom Brown’s exploration of his own industrial career is the opposite. When he retired in 2015, Brown could look back on 45 years spent with a variety of leading companies both in the UK and Germany, often at the top level. His account is filled with criticism of the widespread lack of understanding – both inside companies and among shareholder institutions and governments – of the conditions needed to allow engineering and manufacturing to thrive. Short-term thinking and what he labels fund management “abuses” are to blame, he says, for much of the decline in performance of many formerly top-ranked engineering businesses. Brown’s is a rare insider’s account of life in industry. It finishes with an impressive range of suggestions for actions that he says would improve matters.

Journey of the mavericks

We Do Things Differently: The Outsiders Rebooting Our World, by Mark Stevenson, Profile Books, £7.31, 300 pages

This is an energetic book about entrepreneurs from around the world. Mark Stevenson – who calls himself a “futurist” – has talked to people you are unlikely to have heard of and whom he describes with panache. The enterprises they have started – in sectors including machinery, energy and education – all have in common that they use ideas that go against conventional wisdom. An example is Peter Dearman, inventor of the Dearman engine, a novel mechanism that promises to provide energy from liquid air. While many of the examples are illuminating, the book reads too much like a collection of anecdotes. And the reader is provided with few clues as to which businesses will thrive and which will disappear.

Lessons from a mechanical maestro

Iron Men: How One London Factory Powered the Industrial Revolution and Shaped the Modern World, by David Waller, Anthem Press, £13.79, 205 pages

Anyone who lives in Britain cannot fail to be aware of the country’s illustrious industrial past – the supposed glories of which are often used to cast doubts on the achievements of the UK’s contemporary manufacturers. Often the stories about the people – mainly men – responsible for the advances of the 18th and 19th centuries fail to do enough to link the feats of the past to conditions today. In contrast, David Waller goes to great lengths to draw parallels between Henry Maudslay, the eminent early 19th century engineer who is the book’s central figure, and the entrepreneurs of the 21st century. Not only did Maudslay’s London factory turn out world-beating machine tools, his ideas attracted a generation of talented engineers who made their mark in other fields.

Technology and trysts

Open Arms, by Vince Cable, Corvus, £7.99, 362 pages

Branching out from his other books on weighty economic and social issues, veteran politician Vince Cable tries his hand as a novelist. The result is an entertaining story centred on a British manufacturer of airborne missile systems and its relationship with leading figures in UK and Indian politics. The former UK industry secretary and leader of the Liberal Democrat party has a longstanding interest in manufacturing. He uses some of his knowledge of this world – as well as his years of dealing with networks of government bureaucrats in a range of countries – to conjure up a tale of political intrigue spiced with doses of technological innovation and secret love affairs.

Best of the rest

Technics and Civilisation, by Lewis Mumford, University of Chicago Press, £19.80, 495 pages.
Published in 1934, this magisterial account of technology and production by a leading US academic sets out a compelling frame of reference for viewing the world of manmade things.

The Machine that Changed the World, by James P. Womack, Daniel T. Jones, and Daniel Roos, Free Press, £7.00, 336 pages.
A gripping 1990 account of the car industry, including an examination of the role of lean production and the evolution of the Toyota production system.

Hidden Champions - Lessons from 500 of the World’s Best Unknown Companies, by Hermann Simon, Harvard Business School Press, 298 pages.
German management guru Hermann Simon offers new insights into manufacturing’s “hidden champions”, led by mid-sized German engineering groups.

The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress, by Joel Mokyr, Oxford University Press, £10.69, 250 pages.
In an influential work, one of the world’s top economic historians examines the path of technology and engineering over the centuries.

The New Way Things Work, David Macaulay, Dorling Kindersley, £10.25, 400 pages.
Full of illustrations, this delightful book is a wonderful guide to the world of making things, suitable for anyone from seven-year-olds upwards.

William Armstrong, Magician of the North, by Henrietta Heald, McNidder and Grace, £10.99, 294 pages.
Henrietta Heald explores the life of one of the 19th century’s great British manufacturing and engineering pioneers who was a key influence on industry in north-east England.

The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment, One World, by Martin Ford, £9.99, 334 pages.
Martin Ford provides a sweeping, highly charged investigation into the new world of automation. Scary at times.

Made in Britain: Why Our Economy Is More Successful Than You Think, by Evan Davis, Abacus, £8.99, 276 pages.
An upbeat view of some UK industrial success stories by the BBC TV and radio presenter.

The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, by Daniel Bell, Basic Books, £15.99, 506 pages.
US sociologist Daniel Bell explores how the world has moved into a new era, where manufacturing’s role in many economies has become less significant.

The Slow Death of British Industry: A Sixty-Year Suicide, 1952-2012, Biteback Publishing, £9.99, 354 pages.
A gloom-laden look at a period when Britain’s share of world manufacturing output fell steeply.

Peter Marsh is the author of The New Industrial Revolution: Consumers, Globalisation and the End of Mass Production, Yale University Press, £10.99, 311 pages.
For a review see

Note: Prices are indicative, and normally refer to paperback versions where available. Number of pages for specific books are mainly for the hardback category.