ENGINEERING POSTWAR INDUSTRY, 1940s to the 1970s: The Relative Trajectory of Mass and Specialty Production in the US, UK, Japan, and Western Germany
An international conference to be held July 12-13, 2001 at the Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Delaware, USA. (Coordinators: John Wilson, Queens University, Belfast and Philip Scranton, Rutgers University and Hagley)
If it can be said that industrialisation entails an unsystematic, yet dynamic, search for novelty, for new goods whose high value-added and opportunity profits can generate capital accumulation through seemingly endless rounds of innovation, then historians would do well to search for the methods businesses used in achieving these ends. Time-specific factors –- sites, products, technologies and work processes, markets and state-business relationships -- have clearly played a major role in fashioning these techniques, as research on pre-1940s American business has revealed. Indeed, a good deal is known about the relationship between Fordist mass production techniques and specialty production in the period leading up to the 1940s. Sadly though, few have attempted to analyse the relative trajectory of mass versus specialty production systems for the much-different postwar decades, most notably the period from the 1940s to the 1970s. This conference will undertake to set a new research agenda, bringing together a group of historians from several countries in order to shed light on an era of considerable importance.
The period between the 1940s and 1970s has often been referred to as `The American Era' or the abbreviated 'American Century,' when as a result of wartime ravages and Cold War politics, European and Japanese economies imitated the technical and business achievements of the US corporate sector. In view of the highly varied production tracks taken by these economies, not to mention the fundamental changes affecting many American sectors after 1940, the search for engineering trajectories becomes a major challenge. The scene is clouded by the increasing mismatch between corporations and sectors, given the dramatic changes in the nature of business forms. In view of these changes, enterprises as such become epiphenomenal, though their site- and product-specific organisational and managerial tactics continue to have salience. More central is the search for specialists' trajectories, locations, innovations, market and pricing definitions, and profit strategies, whether located within conglomerates and diversifying industrial firms or in the messy terrain of start-up entrepreneurship.
A major influence on this developmental pattern would have been the pressures exerted by a market which at one and the same time tended towards both homogenization and fragmentation. This pressed manufacturers to adopt shorter production runs of semi-standardised goods, leading to the development of flexible specialisation as the modus operandi across the industrialised world. The challenge for American and European manufacturers becomes even more intense when Japanese firms took a decisive lead in the mass production of differentiated goods, leading to dramatic revisions of long-held practices.
While domestic market competition imposes new disciplines, another key influence on manufacturing industry has been the introduction of computer-based technologies that have radically changed workshop practices. The flexibility provided by numerical control machines and CAD/CAM techniques was a boon to those firms struggling to resolve the dilemmas imposed by the need to differentiate products and produce goods in sufficient quantities so as to achieve economies of scale and scope. Furthermore, computerisation made the globalisation of production and distribution a much more feasible strategy, allowing firms to link supply chains across an indefinite number of plants and sites. This increased globalisation of production also intensified the competitive challenges experienced in all markets by the more efficient and technically progressive Japanese and German firms coming to dominate so many sectors by the 1960s.
Overlaid on these market and technological parameters has been another key feature of the post-1940 age, the increasing role of national governments in financing and nurturing new technologies. While this phenomenon was not exactly unique to the post-1940 era, with World War one and the 1930s standing out as periods of exceptional government involvement, from World War Two technological innovation increasingly became associated with either defence initiatives or the identification of `national champions'. In examining this theme, it is interesting to examine the common claim that `Mass production won World War Two'. Of course, one might point out the massive contrast between the production of millions of rifles and C-rations vs.18,000 B-24 aircraft (in dozens of models) and a single `Fat Boy' or ENIAC. More importantly, given the desire to improve military effectiveness, the US's B-29 averaged forty-two weekly `change orders' to an aircraft composed of over 40,000 parts. Indeed, `cycles of redesign' were an intrinsic feature of wartime production, nurturing skills that in the post-1945 years would be in great demand, especially from Cold War-induced military procurement programmes that rarely seemed to subside.
The role of the state in setting the technological agenda across Western Europe, the USA and the USSR must be a key theme we ought to address. But how did this fit with the pattern of development in countries like West Germany and Japan, where military programmes were constitutionally restricted? Here again, though, the state might well have been active in either targeting key sectors or acquiring new technologies for distribution to firms. As it has been claimed that this kind of relationship, based around the development of civil applications of new technologies, is more productive, one must consider its real-time benefits and contrast this with activities in economies where military applications dominate.
Another dimension of post-1940 government policies that must be addressed is the contribution of micro-economic policies linked to industrial and regional development. While the militarily-oriented technological goals can be assessed for their spin-off benefits, governments worked in many other ways either to encourage modernisation or to rebuild ailing industrial districts. Whether these goals were ever sustainable in a rapidly changing commercial world remains one of the eternal conundrums, especially when one considers the links between employment aims and the technological challenges of the era.
Whenever employment issues are discussed, frequently it is necessary to address the equally thorny problem of skill relevance across the workforce. One of the major challenges for post-war governments was providing the kind of education relevant to a rapidly changing world, linking technological and managerial needs to curriculum reform and innovation. The labour movement would also have played a major role in dictating the nature of change on the shopfloor, especially in countries where trade unions exerted considerable influence over manning and pacing. Similarly, the status of engineering as a profession would have been a factor of some importance in this equation, in both negative and positive senses. Consequently, a study of human resource development must command equal attention when discussing the pace and nature of engineering change in the post-war decades.
Philip Scranton, Director
Center for the History of Business, Technology and Society
Hagley Museum and Library
PO Box 3630
Wilmington, DE 19807 USA Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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