The history of manufacturing, factories, and plants
Reliability Leadership

Plant Operations 101: The History of Plant Operations

Ryan Chan

Plant Operations 101: The History of Plant Operations

For the general public, plant operations are almost a mystery. Not many people know exactly what’s going on behind those gates and smokestacks. For the people who work there, they may only see part of the plant operations and have very little curiosity about the rest of it. 

But plant operations touch many more people than are given credit. Immense advances have been made over the years, improving the working conditions and lives of the plant staff and employees. Quality control, production speed, local, global safety awareness, and more have all improved substantially.  

However, the media today generally tends to focus on when things go wrong. The public rarely highlights when everything is running smoothly, with no adverse effects on the employees, the towns nearby, or to the overall environment. Some people might have a negative impression of plants and plant operations due to the lack of media visibility into the incredible things that happen everyday in plants. 

It’s true that some plants have farther to go than others in coming up to speed with modern technology. But what about all the other plants that silently sustain the world as we know it together today?  Let’s take a look at the present, the past and the future of plant operations and how they impact everyone locally, regionally and globally.  

A Birds’-Eye View of Present Plant and Manufacturing Operations 

The manufacturing industry as a whole, and by extension the local plants and plant operations, suffers from a large knowledge gap. Most people either know a lot about it, as it’s their day job, or don’t know anything about it, except some perceptions they get from the local news of their personal experiences. And it can be very hard to bridge that divide. 

Let’s start with three main touchpoints of plant and manufacturing operations that everyone can understand. 

General Statistics and Facts

Today, manufacturing in the United States drives a significant amount of economic output, totaling 11.6% in 2018. It adds value to the U.S. dollar, employs over 8 percent of the American workforce, and pays well compared to similar jobs across the board. 

It’s projected that 4.6 million manufacturing jobs will be needing workers in the next decade.  Much of what’s manufactured in the United States is exported abroad and contributes to world trade and the global economy. And all of that starts at the plants, large and small, that produce these goods.  

These statistics and facts showcase rising opportunities, a bright picture of the industry, and an overall positive impact. But many companies and facilities are struggling to find qualified workers. That’s because the perception of manufacturing and plants is not always positive.

Let’s take a look.  

The Public’s Perception

While Americans as a whole support the manufacturing industry, they don’t necessarily want their children to enter it. Around 75% of Americans believe that manufacturing jobs are moving overseas and about a third of parents would encourage a child to start a career in manufacturing. 

The perception that manufacturing is a “blue-collar” industry and worries about job security increase the general uneasiness about manufacturing and plant operating as possible career pathways.  

With the advent of the next generation, this may change quickly in the near future. Generation Z is much more open-minded and curious. Combined with new outreach and training programs, the public perception may be much different in the next twenty years. At present, it is a challenge that many plants are facing. 

Current Plants and Plant Operations

Now, let’s look at some of the local statistics and challenges that current plants and plant operations are facing.

Today, the majority of manufacturing plants are still small, with the majority of manufacturing firms having one to four employees. The same holds true for manufacturing plants. The United States Department of Labor only requires power plant workers to have a high school diploma or an equivalent in order to work and other plants typically don’t require more. 

What are some of the current challenges? Well, the United States entered the 21st consecutive month of growth in May 2018. This posed a new set of challenges that are still being solved today. Most notably, even though the industry is growing, the workforce is declining. As an example, power plant workers alone are down 6% this year. Other challenges include hurried expansion, finding talent, and the competitive global market. 

This wasn’t always the case. Historically, the global marketplace barely existed at all. When it did start, it was never before on the scale that it exists today. What changed? What were some of the major innovations that shifted the once small and local playing field to one that reaches around the world? And what are the important milestones in the history of plant operations that should not be forgotten? 

Let’s move into an overview of the history of plant operations and how they became what they are today. 

The History of Manufacturing, Factories, and Plants

The history of manufacturing spans through eras filled with factories, equipment, mobility innovations, and more. Here is a brief history of the historic revolutions in manufacturing plants:

1790: Samuel Slater Builds the First Factory in America
The history of manufacturing, factories, and plants

Englishman Samuel Slater built the first factory in America. It was powered by water, created yarn via a series of spindles, and still stands today. Branded a traitor for adapting English technology to American uses, Slater today is considered the father of the American industrial revolution. 

1798: Eli Whitney Creates Interchangeable Parts

The history of manufacturing, factories, and plants

While the concept of interchangeable parts dates back to the 1700s in Switzerland, it took almost a hundred years to make them a reality. Eli Whitney, faced with the challenge of making a large number of guns in a short amount of time, made the first interchangeable parts, setting the speed standard higher than had been possible before.  

1804: Oliver Evans Patents a High-Pressure Steam Engine

The history of manufacturing, factories, and plants

Oliver Evans’ steam engine was quickly integrated into many industrial purposes. At the time, it helped power ships, flour and saw mills, and printing presses. He also pioneered the first continuous production line, which laid the groundwork for assembly lines past and present. 

1820-1870: The Industrial Revolution Takes Off 

The history of manufacturing, factories, and plants

At this point in time, all the key pieces are in place for the industrial revolution to start. And it didn’t stop, though the starting date is debatable. During this time, multiple inventions were created, including the lightbulb, telephone, sewing machine, and combustible engines. The majority of these at this time are created in factories that had harsh living conditions and work standards. 

1850-1890 American Manufacturing Becomes a System

The history of manufacturing, factories, and plants

During this period, the world begins to sit up and take notice. America manufacturing is rapidly changing! Interchangeable parts, infant production lines, and increased mechanization give the United States considerable advantages and increased advancement in the global march to the future. 

Early 1900s: Henry Ford’s Innovations

The history of manufacturing, factories, and plants

While Henry Ford did not invent the assembly line or the first automobile, he was the first to make both innovations easily accessible and highly productive. His assembly lines paved the way for future automation and industrial robots, while the Model T opened up new horizons for the general public. 

1930s: Toyota Pioneers Lean Manufacturing

“Just-In-Time” manufacturing became an integral part of Toyota’s factories and plants at this time. This was the beginning of lean manufacturing, which didn’t truly take off until the 1990s. However, like some of the other innovations in factory and plant operations, the time from the pioneer phase to general acceptance takes time. 

1947: Founding of the International Organization for Standardization 

The history of manufacturing, factories, and plants

At this time, world leaders realized that manufacturing needed global standards that all nations recognized. This also enabled a better and faster global trade. The International Organization for Standardization paved the way for a more connected manufacturing world. 

1950s: The True Beginnings of Automation

In the 1950s, automation was finally able to start. While the pieces had been in the works for much longer, the second Industrial Revolution raised worries about the future of manufacturing jobs and the future of the industry. These concerns still ring true today. 

1957: FORTRAN is Introduced

The history of manufacturing, factories, and plants

When the first team behind FORTRAN brought this revolutionary way to communicate to the newest technology available, it was again an innovation that waited in the wings for some time. In 1962, the first standardized FORTRAN became available and it became the first computer language that was held to a set of standards. 

1960s: Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) Standards are Developed

Sometimes called the gold standard of measuring manufacturing, the OEE standards were created at this time. These standards identify what percentage of overall manufacturing is productive and what percentage is not. These and other standards that were created focused on leveraging the industry by increasing productivity. 

1971: Creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act

The history of manufacturing, factories, and plants

The OSHA regulations had a simple goal: increase workplace safety for all. And it worked. Though accurate statistics were not well-kept before, the difference was noticed. OSHA continues to protect workers today. 

1973: Introduction of Industrial Robots

First introduced to the European market by ABB Robotics and KUKA Robotics, industrial robots quickly made their way to the States. The history of robots is fascinating in and of itself, however, this initial start had and has a lot of promise for the future of plant operations. 

1979: American Manufacturing Industry Employment Rates Peak 

The history of manufacturing, factories, and plants

The Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that in 1979, American manufacturing industry employment peaked. It’s never quite hit the same highs as it did then, which may not be a bad thing. It is an important mile marker in history, regardless. 

1980s: The Rise of Computers

When computers enter the plants and factories, wider horizons opened up for every single person involved. At the beginning of their adoption, computers were (and still are) valued for their efficiency. Today, they can do so much more. And it’s still only in the early stages of global adoption.  

1995: Six Sigma Implemented at GE

The history of manufacturing, factories, and plants

Six Sigma is a system of doing business. It gained tractor in 1995, but its roots stretch back much further. In brief, it started as a measurement standard in product variation. This quickly morphed into a way of doing business that is widely used today.  

2002: The U.S. Manufacturing Enterprise Integration Act

This act was specifically designed to promote the development of smart manufacturing infrastructure. It allows for such things as the Internet of Things and other massive changes to the world of manufacturing as we know it today. 

2013: 3-D Printing Enters the Manufacturing World

The history of manufacturing, factories, and plants

One of the most recent developments in the world of manufacturing and plant operations was the adoption of 3-D printing. While it’s not quite mainstream yet, it’s growing rapidly and the future holds a lot of promise. 

Present Day: Where Will We Go Now?

That’s a brief overview of the world of manufacturing, factories, and modern-day plants. From the very beginnings of industry in America, to the peak of employment, to the modern day, we’ve touched on almost every aspect. 

\With that behind us, what are the next steps? What do they hold for us, both in the immediate and the far-away future?  

Plant Operations Of Tomorrow

The old saying “those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it” may or may not apply to the plant operations of tomorrow. That’s why some plants and companies are simply watching to see what happens next. However, It is a fact that plants must pivot in the near future, but just how are they going to pivot?

Some plants and industries have already pivoted and are reaching great success. Let’s look at what they are doing and where other plants will go in the future. 

Where Tomorrow’s Plants Are Today

The plants that are closest to the future generally tend to focus on three things:

1  Improving efficiently rates of expensive, fixed-priced assets.

2. Filling their needs for skilled labor.

3. Protecting their profit margin in an increasingly competitive world. 

The old ways of doing this–training more people, expanding into new markets, and dominating the markets–still work to some extent. However, the global economy is forcing savvy manufacturers and their plants to change. Some of the ways that this is happening today include:

  • Implementing machine learning in various forms, including blockchain, AI and the Internet of things
  • Automating more and more processes
  • Switching to digital platforms to manage their companies, such as CMMS systems.
  • Exploring augmented reality and how to use it in a plant setting/with plant operations
  • Working with the convergence of the Internet of Things and operational technologies.
  • And more.

While these plants may be pushing the boundaries that separate the present from the future, where do the professionals see the future of plant operations going? 

The Future Forecasted

Forbes predicts a few major things about the future. First of all, the public’s perception has to change if manufacturing jobs are going to stay in the United States. People need to realize that manufacturing and plant jobs are not what they think they are. There is room for advancement, education, and innovation in the day-to-day plant operator’s life, if that’s what they want and are working towards. 

Second, technology is here to help manufacturing, plants, and plant operators. 3D printing may be part of the future of supply chains. It may not be perfect yet, but it’s getting there. 

Finally, the future of plant operations is exciting. It holds a lot of promise that only time will show us. Whether it becomes at some point completely automated, integrated fully into the precise needs of consumers, and/or opens the doors to a world that has still not been dreamed of, it will be an exciting ride. 

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