For most of the 20th century, manufacturing was primarily the domain of big factories, big machines, and big money. Giant production lines stamped out cars, ketchup, kettles, and Kevlar. Creating a product involved a very expensive and complex tooling-up process, a sunk cost that would eventually be paid back through the volume of sales that the manufacturing process made possible. Contrast that with how most things were produced before the Industrial Revolution. Yes, there were some very large operations (shipbuilding and the pyramids come to mind). But most tasks, like making clothes or producing milk, were done in cottages, on the farm, or in very small merchant shops. These were the cottage industries of yore. There was value in those tiny cottage industries, not the least being the self-determination of the craftspeople creating products. They didn’t have to rely on giant corporations, huge factories, or focus groups to get something done. On the other hand, the complexity and capabilities of the products produced in cottage industries were, of necessity, limited by the tools and resources to which small merchants and families had access. In the last decade or so, we’ve had a bit of a return to the cottage industry. Only this time, robots are helping out. The result: Prototypes, individual products, and short production runs are churning out products created by individuals and small groups, yet having the capability, quality, and complexity of products that previously required millions of dollars of investment, large factories, and very large workforces.
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