Scaling the Factory

Today’s mega-factories redefine mass production.

By Kate Pavao

Summer 2018

How will your favorite brands be made tomorrow? Here, historian Joshua B. Freeman, author of Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World, talks to Profit about what it’s really like in today’s manufacturing plants and how manufacturers are balancing human labor and automation.

On Modern Manufacturing: It used to be that if you bought a Singer sewing machine, Singer made it. If you bought a Ford car, Ford made it. Today you buy an Apple product, and it’s extremely unlikely Apple made it. Many of our very well-known brands are controlled by companies that design and market products and maybe do some of the logistics. But the actual making is subcontracted.

Most of us don’t even know where our products are made, which has distanced us from the production process. We take for granted what’s actually a kind of miraculous thing: to be able to make these things and not to think about who might be making them.

I don’t think there’s going to be one model in the future.”

On Mega-Factories: The largest factories in history, operating right now in the electronics assembly area, particularly in China, range from 50,000 to 200,000 workers and more. In many cases, workers live in dormitories run by or owned by the company. This provides housing and the ability to rapidly mobilize large numbers of workers for very long workdays when rush orders come in. These mega-complexes include factories and warehouses, as well as dormitories, sports facilities, restaurants, and cybercafes. One of the big Foxconn plants even has a wedding dress shop.

Percentage of workers in China employed in industry in 2015.

On the Future of Mass Production: We will continue to see these very giant factories making very, very large numbers of standardized products, whether it’s cars or laptops or sneakers. There will also be places like a Bangladesh clothing factory, where it’s not worth the money to invest in developing advanced technology because you can hire labor so cheaply that you’re making blouses and blue jeans in a way that a worker in a sweatshop in New York City in 1910 would. One can imagine certain kinds of distributed, very high-tech manufacturing, mostly for niche products or short runs of things on demand, using 3D printing and other kinds of new approaches.