Dieter Adam 16 October 2023
‘Manufacturing’ is derived from Latin and combines the words for ‘Hand’ and ‘Making’; it literally means ‘making (something, a product) by hand’.
Manufacturing involves a mental process – creating an idea / concept / design – and a physical process, using one’s hands (more or less). In this process the idea always comes first.
In the light of this, manufacturing can be described as turning an idea into an object, an objectification of something subjective (the idea). This objectification involves an act or process of separation. The idea is mine, and as long as I don’t share it, just part of me. The object I have manufactured, however, is separate from me.
The objectification of our ideas is essential to human existence – we can’t live off ideas alone. Working with one’s hands is a distinguishing feature of primates and has been part of the human condition from the inception of humanity. No wonder, then, that to most people creating an object with their hands can be deeply satisfying, and psychologists have been studying the emotional rewards from working with one’s hands for a long time.
Prior to the industrial age, the objectification involved in most ‘manufacturing’ still was under the control of one and the same person. A cabinetmaker designed and built a cabinet, usually in a workshop adjacent or close to their home. There were exceptions to this ‘wholesome’ situation – the pyramids, shipbuilding, or the customer bringing their own design ideas to the cabinetmaker. Also, until you were a master yourself, you worked to objectify your master’s ideas.
All of this changed with the onset of the industrial age, when objectification also involved alienation. Tradespeople were replaced by workers who used their hands to make what others had designed. Moreover, workers lost ownership and control over the processes involved in manufacturing, and the conditions under which manufacturing was performed. On top of that, the place where they used their hands to make was moved from ‘close to home’ (cabinet maker’s workshop) to a more remote location.
If manufacturing an object that I have thought of myself close to home and using processes under my control produces emotional rewards, wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that such alienation leads to a reduction or negation of those emotional rewards, and frustration?
It is no co-incidence, by the way, that the thoughts and writings of Karl Marx started in parallel to this alienation, which is at the core of Marx’s critique of the social system that arose with the industrial age. The manufacture of things now involved two separate social groups: employers who owned the means of production and controlled what was produced where, how and when, and workers who were in control only over the time for which they made their hands available – and, in reality, not even that, if they wanted to eat.
What does all this have to do with our world of manufacturing today? Well, we observe and are concerned about a shortage of young people developing an interest in and taking up a career in manufacturing. Based on current trends in demography and career choice, we will be far from being able to replace the workers in manufacturing that are going to retire within the next 10-15 years.
We are not alone in this. The situation in manufacturing is similar in other industrialised countries, and here and abroad in other sectors where wealth is created ‘by hand’ (albeit with the help of machinery). There are growing shortages of trades people like plumbers and electricians, for example.
There have been plenty of attempts to explain this lack of interest – often just based on assumptions. Could one reason be a failure to address the negative emotional impacts of the alienation described above? Just going to work everyday and “making stuff for the boss”, without any feeling of control or ownership of what we make, and how?
If it is true that a feeling of ‘sense’ in what we are doing (making) is more important to young people today than it was in the past, might it be worth to raise levels of interest and engagement in manufacturing by reducing this alienation. We won’t be going back to a world of cabinetmakers working in their own workshop. But there may be ways of giving manufacturing workers more of a feeling of control over the processes they are involved in – beyond suggestion boxes – and more of a feeling of ownership and pride in what they make?