engineering industry

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engineering industry. Engineering can take a variety of forms—civil, military, or mechanical—but the term ‘engineering industry’ is normally used in a more limited sense to describe the industry devoted to the manufacture of engines, machine-tools, and machinery. Up to the 18th cent. such products had traditionally been made by craftsmen such as blacksmiths and millwrights working in their own forges or workshops, but the rapid increase in the processes of industrialization in Britain encouraged the emergence of the modern engineering industry, with power-operated machine-tools brought together in factories, served by forges, foundries, and carpenters' shops preparing metal and wood parts for processing and assembling. The first organized array of these facilities was probably the factory at Soho in Birmingham developed by Matthew Boulton to manufacture the steam-engines of his partner, James Watt.

Other manufacturers of steam-engines built up similar establishments, while some engineers entered the business to make textile machines or—like Henry Maudslay in Lambeth—better machine-tools. Maudslay responded to the need for greater precision in lathes, drills, planing machines, and other tools for cutting and shaping metal, and set new standards of excellence. He also trained a generation of engineers, including Richard Roberts, James Nasmyth, and Joseph Whitworth, who further improved reliability.

Whitworth, who became an outstanding figure in British engineering in the middle of the 19th cent. and won prizes at the Great Exhibition of 1851 for his superb machines, also achieved considerable success in standardizing screws and other basic machine parts. This made possible the development of mass production, whereby machines could be manufactured from sets of identical parts. Such practices had been established at the beginning of the 19th cent. by Marc Brunel and Henry Maudslay in order to create their famous block-manufacturing workshop in the royal dockyard at Portsmouth. But they were adopted with most enthusiasm by the new engineering industry of the USA, so that they became known as the ‘American system’ of engineering and were widely used in the manufacture of small arms, sewing-machines, and agricultural equipment.

The next stage in the development of the engineering industry was the introduction of systematic assembly techniques based on the moving assembly line, with all the processes linked together in a ‘flow’ pattern which enabled a complicated product like a motor car to be built quickly and economically. Once this had been achieved it became possible to introduce more and more automation in the performance of the functions of the assembly line. A modern automobile factory, for instance, uses electronically controlled ‘robot’ machines to perform most of the manufacturing processes, with the human participation reduced in numbers to a small team of controllers and maintenance staff.

R. Angus Buchanan