Commentary Understanding Modern Production

Gary Shilling When our kids were young, we took them to the usual family cultural attractions like colonial Williamsburg where we all got a good understanding of 18th century life. Our boys and I, and, to a lesser extent, my wife and our daughter, the youngest of the four, were fascinated by techniques for producing goods back then.

We saw a blacksmith make nails. He heated a small piece of steel in a wood burning forge until it was red hot, then hammered it into a mold to form the nail and shape the head. It was a long, laborious, multi-step process, and a skilled blacksmith could only make a few nails per hour. No wonder that in colonial times, wood pegs were normally used in construction, and farmers who were moving west often burned down their houses first to recover the nails.

It was also interesting to watch a glass blower dip his blowpipe into a vat of molten glass, then blow it and shape it with the aid of various wooden molds. The finished piece was then separated from the blowpipe, put in an oven to cool slowly, and ultimately moved to the gift shop.

Other craftsmen were weaving and making wooden barrels, shoes, saddles, and guns, all with 18th century technology. In each case, it was a one-man show with the same person turning the raw materials into the finished product. This, of course, made the procedures very visual and comprehensible. Still, I always worried that our children learned much more about colonial production techniques than about how goods are made today.

That’s changed in recent years. The Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark in Birmingham, Alabama, for example, is a 124-year-old pig iron blast furnace that shut down in 1971 but is now open to visitors. Other recently closed industrial facilities that have become museums feature mining, steel production, auto making and ship building.

At Sloss, visitors can watch a movie about former workers and look at old cranes, blast furnaces and the boilers that made the steam to power them. They also see where raw materials like iron ore, coke and limestone were unloaded from rail cars.

But the only actual production at Sloss is young artisans in residence making steel in a mini-furnace from scrap and forging the output into cocktail tables and candle holders. The actual pig iron production of Sloss’s heyday is long gone, and even that technology, although much more recent than 18th century methods, is way out of date.

If it were state-of-the-art, Sloss wouldn’t be a museum but would still be turning out pig iron and able to compete in today’s global economy. In contrast, the modern electric furnaces of Nucor, which efficiently makes steel from scrap, aren’t generally available for tourists.

Furthermore, there are three additional major constraints to youths’ – and adults’ – comprehension of modern production. First, the U.S., like other advanced economies, is increasing service-oriented and decreasingly involved with goods production. In the post-World War II era, services have risen from 35% of GDP to 57%, while goods production has fallen from 57% to 33%. And, those employed by goods’ producers are increasingly service workers like accountants, HR experts and even economists.

As incomes rise, the tendency is to spend more of the increases on services than on goods. With recreation and travel and weddings, the sky’s the limit, but how many more cars can you fit in your driveway? Rapid productivity growth in manufacturing, and the shift of production to cheaper locations abroad, have also worked against American goods-producing facilities and employment.

Many services are simply difficult for a child to understand. Sure, every American boy wants to be a fireman at some point because the job appears exciting and easy to comprehend. A barber’s job and that of a sales clerk are also straightforward. But what is Daddy really doing all day in his insurance company office, with people running in and out, many meetings and surrounded by paper, telephones and computers?

The second problem in understanding modern production is that few goods are made today by one person in one location. Increasingly, they aren’t even made from start to finish in the same country. A computer chip might be designed in the U.S., manufactured in Taiwan, installed in a sub-assembly in Thailand and then put into a TV set in China before being exported to the U.S. It would take a lot of travel for anyone to view the entire production process.

The third restraint is the increasing amount of brainpower and decreasing quantity of materials in modern goods. A century ago, steel was major, and its production, complete with white hot metal and lots of sparks, was very impressive. Today, semiconductors are front and center, but designing and making them is much less captivating, at least to the uninitiated.

We tried to offset these constraints by taking out children to cutlery and sauerkraut factories in my hometown, Fremont, Ohio. Still, kids today have to resort to new ways to see how things are made. Videos and the Internet can be very helpful.

So can books like The Way Things Work by David Mccaulay (Houghton Mifflin, 1988). It’s written for children but was enthusiastically received by me as a Christmas present from our second son and his family several years ago. With lots of drawings and the aid of a cartoon woolly mammoth, Mccaulay explains inclined planes, pulleys and other mechanisms of motion, and then moves on to showing why steel boats float, why a sailboat can sail into the wind, and the intricacies of steam, electrical power and jet engines. Next he turns to energy waves, including light, photography, printing, and telecommunications. Mccaulay concluded by explaining electricity, magnetism, and computers.

I hope that one way or another, today’s youngsters will be able to comprehend current production of goods as well as services. They’ll need to in the world they’ll face. © 2004 A. Gary Shilling & Co., Inc.

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