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Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg, Germany

A factory, manufacturing plant or production plant is an industrial facility, often a complex consisting of several buildings filled with machinery, where workers manufacture items or operate machines which process each item into another. They are a critical part of modern economic production, with the majority of the world's goods being created or processed within factories.

Factories arose with the introduction of machinery during the Industrial Revolution, when the capital and space requirements became too great for cottage industry or workshops. Early factories that contained small amounts of machinery, such as one or two spinning mules, and fewer than a dozen workers have been called "glorified workshops".[1]

Most modern factories have large warehouses or warehouse-like facilities that contain heavy equipment used for assembly line production. Large factories tend to be located with access to multiple modes of transportation, some having rail, highway and water loading and unloading facilities.[2] In some countries like Australia, it is common to call a factory building a "Shed".[3]

Factories may either make discrete products or some type of continuously produced material, such as chemicals, pulp and paper, or refined oil products. Factories manufacturing chemicals are often called plants and may have most of their equipment – tanks, pressure vessels, chemical reactors, pumps and piping – outdoors and operated from control rooms. Oil refineries have most of their equipment outdoors.

Discrete products may be final goods, or parts and sub-assemblies which are made into final products elsewhere. Factories may be supplied parts from elsewhere or make them from raw materials. Continuous production industries typically use heat or electricity to transform streams of raw materials into finished products.

The term mill originally referred to the milling of grain, which usually used natural resources such as water or wind power until those were displaced by steam power in the 19th century. Because many processes like spinning and weaving, iron rolling, and paper manufacturing were originally powered by water, the term survives as in steel mill, paper mill, etc.

Reconstructed historical factory in Žilina (Slovakia) for production of safety matches. Originally built in 1915 for the business firm Wittenberg and son.


Entrance to the Venetian Arsenal by Canaletto, 1732.
Interior of the Lyme Regis watermill, UK (14th century).

Max Weber considered production during ancient and medieval times as never warranting classification as factories, with methods of production and the contemporary economic situation incomparable to modern or even pre-modern developments of industry. In ancient times, the earliest production limited to the household, developed into a separate endeavor independent to the place of inhabitation with production at that time only beginning to be characteristic of industry, termed as "unfree shop industry", a situation caused especially under the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh, with slave employment and no differentiation of skills within the slave group comparable to modern definitions as division of labour.[4][5][6]

According to translations of Demosthenes and Herodotus, Naucratis was a, or the only, factory in the entirety of ancient Egypt.[7][8][9] A source of 1983 (Hopkins), states the largest factory production in ancient times was of 120 slaves within fourth century BC Athens.[10] An article within the New York Times article dated 13 October 2011 states:

"In African Cave, Signs of an Ancient Paint Factory" – (John Noble Wilford)

... discovered at Blombos Cave, a cave on the south coast of South Africa where 100,000-year-old tools and ingredients were found with which early modern humans mixed an ochre-based paint.[11]

Although The Cambridge Online Dictionary definition of factory states:

a building or set of buildings where large amounts of goods are made using machines[12]


... the utilization of machines presupposes social cooperation and the division of labour

— von Mises[13]

The first machine is stated by one source to have been traps used to assist with the capturing of animals, corresponding to the machine as a mechanism operating independently or with very little force by interaction from a human, with a capacity for use repeatedly with operation exactly the same on every occasion of functioning.[14] The wheel was invented c. 3000 BC, the spoked wheel c. 2000 BC. The Iron Age began approximately 1200–1000 BC.[15][16] However, other sources define machinery as a means of production.[17]

Archaeology provides a date for the earliest city as 5000 BC as Tell Brak (Ur et al. 2006), therefore a date for cooperation and factors of demand, by an increased community size and population to make something like factory level production a conceivable necessity.[18][19][20]

Archaeologist Bonnet, unearthed the foundations of numerous workshops in the city of Kerma proving that as early as 2000 BC Kerma was a large urban capital.[21]

The watermill was first made in the Persian Empire some time before 350 BC.[verification needed][22] In the third century BC, Philo of Byzantium describes a water-driven wheel in his technical treatises. Factories producing garum were common in the Roman Empire.[23] The Barbegal aqueduct and mills are an industrial complex from the second century AD found in southern France. By the time of the fourth century AD, there was a water-milling installation with a capacity to grind 28 tons of grain per day,[24] a rate sufficient to meet the needs of 80,000 persons, in the Roman Empire.[25][26][27]

The large population increase in medieval Islamic cities, such as Baghdad's 1.5 million population, led to the development of large-scale factory milling installations with higher productivity to feed and support the large growing population. A tenth-century grain-processing factory in the Egyptian town of Bilbays, for example, produced an estimated 300 tons of grain and flour per day.[24] Both watermills and windmills were widely used in the Islamic world at the time.[28]

The Venice Arsenal also provides one of the first examples of a factory in the modern sense of the word. Founded in 1104 in Venice, Republic of Venice, several hundred years before the Industrial Revolution, it mass-produced ships on assembly lines using manufactured parts. The Venice Arsenal apparently produced nearly one ship every day and, at its height, employed 16,000 people.[verification needed][29]

Industrial Revolution[edit]

Cromford mill as it is today.
Working day ends at Tampella factory in Tampere, Finland in 1909

One of the earliest factories was John Lombe's water-powered silk mill at Derby, operational by 1721. By 1746, an integrated brass mill was working at Warmley near Bristol. Raw material went in at one end, was smelted into brass and was turned into pans, pins, wire, and other goods. Housing was provided for workers on site. Josiah Wedgwood in Staffordshire and Matthew Boulton at his Soho Manufactory were other prominent early industrialists, who employed the factory system.

The factory system began widespread use somewhat later when cotton spinning was mechanized.

Richard Arkwright is the person credited with inventing the prototype of the modern factory. After he patented his water frame in 1769, he established Cromford Mill, in Derbyshire, England, significantly expanding the village of Cromford to accommodate the migrant workers new to the area. The factory system was a new way of organizing workforce made necessary by the development of machines which were too large to house in a worker's cottage. Working hours were as long as they had been for the farmer, that is, from dawn to dusk, six days per week. Overall, this practice essentially reduced skilled and unskilled workers to replaceable commodities. Arkwright's factory was the first successful cotton spinning factory in the world; it showed unequivocally the way ahead for industry and was widely copied.

Between 1770 and 1850 mechanized factories supplanted traditional artisan shops as the predominant form of manufacturing institution, because the larger-scale factories enjoyed a significant technological and supervision advantage over the small artisan shops.[30] The earliest factories (using the factory system) developed in the cotton and wool textiles industry. Later generations of factories included mechanized shoe production and manufacturing of machinery, including machine tools. After this came factories that supplied the railroad industry included rolling mills, foundries and locomotive works, along with agricultural-equipment factories that produced cast-steel plows and reapers. Bicycles were mass-produced beginning in the 1880s.

The Nasmyth, Gaskell and Company's Bridgewater Foundry, which began operation in 1836, was one of the earliest factories to use modern materials handling such as cranes and rail tracks through the buildings for handling heavy items.[31]

Large scale electrification of factories began around 1900 after the development of the AC motor which was able to run at constant speed depending on the number of poles and the current electrical frequency.[32] At first larger motors were added to line shafts, but as soon as small horsepower motors became widely available, factories switched to unit drive. Eliminating line shafts freed factories of layout constraints and allowed factory layout to be more efficient. Electrification enabled sequential automation using relay logic.

Assembly line[edit]

Factory automation with industrial robots for palletizing food products like bread and toast at a bakery in Germany.

Henry Ford further revolutionized the factory concept in the early 20th century, with the innovation of the mass production. Highly specialized laborers situated alongside a series of rolling ramps would build up a product such as (in Ford's case) an automobile. This concept dramatically decreased production costs for virtually all manufactured goods and brought about the age of consumerism.[33]

In the mid - to late 20th century, industrialized countries introduced next-generation factories with two improvements:

  1. Advanced statistical methods of quality control, pioneered by the American mathematician William Edwards Deming, whom his home country initially ignored. Quality control turned Japanese factories into world leaders in cost-effectiveness and production quality.
  2. Industrial robots on the factory floor, introduced in the late 1970s. These computer-controlled welding arms and grippers could perform simple tasks such as attaching a car door quickly and flawlessly 24 hours a day. This too cut costs and improved speed.

Some speculation[34] as to the future of the factory includes scenarios with rapid prototyping, nanotechnology, and orbital zero-gravity facilities.[35] There is some scepticism about the development of the factories of the future if the robotic industry is not matched by a higher technological level of the people who operate it. According to some authors, the four basic pillars of the factories of the future are strategy, technology, people and habitability, which would take the form of a kind of "laboratory factories", with management models that allow "producing with quality while experimenting to do it better tomorrow".[36][37]

Historically significant factories[edit]

Highland Park Ford plant, c. 1922

Siting the factory[edit]

A factory worker in 1942 Fort Worth, Texas, United States.

Before the advent of mass transportation, factories' needs for ever-greater concentrations of labourers meant that they typically grew up in an urban setting or fostered their own urbanization. Industrial slums developed, and reinforced their own development through the interactions between factories, as when one factory's output or waste-product became the raw materials of another factory (preferably nearby). Canals and railways grew as factories spread, each clustering around sources of cheap energy, available materials and/or mass markets. The exception proved the rule: even greenfield factory sites such as Bournville, founded in a rural setting, developed their own housing and profited from convenient communications systems.[38]

Regulation curbed some of the worst excesses of industrialization's factory-based society, labourers of Factory Acts leading the way in Britain. Trams, automobiles and town planning encouraged the separate development of industrial suburbs and residential suburbs, with labourers commuting between them.

Though factories dominated the Industrial Era, the growth in the service sector eventually began to dethrone them:[verification needed] the focus of labour, in general, shifted to central-city office towers or to semi-rural campus-style establishments, and many factories stood deserted in local rust belts.

The next blow to the traditional factories came from globalization. Manufacturing processes (or their logical successors, assembly plants) in the late 20th century re-focussed in many instances on Special Economic Zones in developing countries or on maquiladoras just across the national boundaries of industrialized states. Further re-location to the least industrialized nations appears possible as the benefits of out-sourcing and the lessons of flexible location apply in the future.[verification needed]

Governing the factory[edit]

Much of management theory developed in response to the need to control factory processes.[verification needed] Assumptions on the hierarchies of unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled laborers and their supervisors and managers still linger on; however an example of a more contemporary approach to handle design applicable to manufacturing facilities can be found in Socio-Technical Systems (STS).

Shadow factories[edit]

In Britain, a shadow factory is one of a number of manufacturing sites built in dispersed locations in times of war to reduce the risk of disruption due to enemy air-raids and often with the dual purpose of increasing manufacturing capacity. Before World War II Britain had built many shadow factories.

Production of the Supermarine Spitfire at its parent company's base at Woolston, Southampton was vulnerable to enemy attack as a high-profile target and was well within range of Luftwaffe bombers. Indeed, on 26 September 1940 this facility was completely destroyed by an enemy bombing raid. Supermarine had already established a plant at Castle Bromwich; this action prompted them to further disperse Spitfire production around the country with many premises being requisitioned by the British Government.[39]

Connected to the Spitfire was production of its equally important Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, Rolls-Royce's main aero engine facility was located at Derby, the need for increased output was met by building new factories in Crewe and Glasgow and using a purpose-built factory of Ford of Britain in Trafford Park Manchester.[40]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Landes, David. S. (1969). The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present. Cambridge, New York: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-09418-6.
  2. ^ Hozdić, Elvis (2015). "Smart Factory for Industry 4.0: A review". International Journal of Modern Manufacturing Technologies. 7 (1): 28–35.
  3. ^ "What Are Industrial Sheds?". Asset Building. Archived from the original on 10 March 2020.
  4. ^ John R. LoveAntiquity and Capitalism: Max Weber and the Sociological Foundations of Roman Civilization Routledge, 25 April 1991 Retrieved 12 July 2012 ISBN 0415047501
  5. ^ (secondary) JG Douglas, N Douglas – Ancient Households of the Americas: Conceptualizing What Households Do O'Reilly Media, Inc., 15 April 2012 Retrieved 12 July 2012 ISBN 1457117444
  6. ^ M Weber – General Economic History Transaction Publishers, 1981 Retrieved 12 July 2012 ISBN 0878556907
  7. ^ Demosthenes, Robert Whiston – Demosthenes, Volume 2 Whittaker and Company, 1868 Retrieved 12 July 2012
  8. ^ Herodotus, George RawlinsonHistory of Herodotus John Murray 1862 Retrieved 12 July 2012
  9. ^ (secondary) (E.Hughes ed) Oxford Companion to Philosophy – techne
  10. ^ (P Garnsey, K Hopkins, C. R. Whittaker) Trade in the Ancient Economy University of California Press, 1983 Retrieved 12 July 2012 ISBN 0520048032
  11. ^ John Noble Wilford (13 October 2011). "In African Cave, Signs of an Ancient Paint Factory". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
  12. ^ "factory definition, meaning - what is factory in the British English Dictionary & Thesaurus – Cambridge Dictionaries Online". cambridge.org.
  13. ^ L von Mises - Theory and History Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2007 Retrieved 2012-07-12 ISBN 1933550198
  14. ^ E Bautista Paz, M Ceccarelli, J Echávarri Otero, JL Muñoz Sanz – A Brief Illustrated History of Machines and Mechanisms Springer, 12 May 2010 Retrieved 12 July 2012 ISBN 9048125111
  15. ^ JW Humphrey – Ancient Technology Greenwood Publishing Group, 30 September 2006 Retrieved 12 July 2012 ISBN 0313327637
  16. ^ WJ Hamblin – Warfare in the Ancient Near East to 1600 BC: Holy Warriors at the Dawn of History Taylor & Francis, 12 April 2006 Retrieved 12 July 2012 ISBN 0415255880
  17. ^ Mantoux, Paul (2000). The Industrial Revolution in Eighteenth Century: An Outline of the Beginnings of the Modern Factory System in England. Harper & Row. ISBN 978-0061310799.
  18. ^ Oates, Joan; McMahon, Augusta; Karsgaard, Philip; Quntar, Salam Al; Ur, Jason (September 2007). "Early Mesopotamian urbanism: a new view from the north". Antiquity. 81 (313): 585–600. doi:10.1017/S0003598X00095600. ISSN 0003-598X.
  19. ^ Knabb, Kyle Andrew (2008). Understanding the role of production and craft specialization in ancient socio-economic systems: toward the integration of spatial analysis, 3D modeling and virtual reality in archaeology (MA). University of California San Diego.
  20. ^ Gates, Charles (2003). Ancient Cities: The Archaeology of Urban Life in the Ancient Near East and Egypt, Greece and Rome. Psychology Press. p. 318. ISBN 9780415121828.
  21. ^ Grzymski, K. (2008). Book review: The Nubian pharaohs: Black kings on the Nile. American Journal of Archaeology, Online Publications: Book Review. Retrieved from "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 5 November 2014. Retrieved 17 December 2014.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  22. ^ Selin, Helaine (2013). Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Westen Cultures. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 282. ISBN 9789401714167.
  23. ^ Borschel-Dan, Amanda (16 December 2019). "Factory for Romans' favorite funky fish sauce discovered near Ashkelon". www.timesofisrael.com. Retrieved 18 December 2019.
  24. ^ a b Hill, Donald (2013). A History of Engineering in Classical and Medieval Times. Routledge. pp. 163–166. ISBN 9781317761570.
  25. ^ TK Derry, (TI Williams ed) – A Short History of Technology: From the Earliest Times to A.D. 1900 Courier Dover Publications, 24 March 1993 Retrieved 12 July 2012 ISBN 0486274721
  26. ^ A Pacey – Technology in World Civilization: A Thousand-Year History MIT Press, 1 July 1991 Retrieved 12 July 2012 ISBN 0262660725
  27. ^ WM Sumner – Cultural development in the Kur River Basin, Iran: an archaeological analysis of settlement patterns University of Pennsylvania., 1972 [1] Retrieved 12 July 2012
  28. ^ Adam Lucas (2006), Wind, Water, Work: Ancient and Medieval Milling Technology, p. 65, Brill Publishers, ISBN 90-04-14649-0
  29. ^ ALTEKAR, RAHUL V. (1 January 2005). SUPPLY CHAIN MANAGEMENT: CONCEPTS AND CASES. PHI Learning Pvt. Ltd. ISBN 9788120328594.
  30. ^ Marglin, Stephen A. (1 July 1974). "What Do Bosses Do?: The Origins and Functions of Hierarchy in Capitalist Production" (PDF). Review of Radical Political Economics. 6 (60): 60–112. doi:10.1177/048661347400600206. S2CID 153641564. Retrieved 2 February 2019.
  31. ^ Musson; Robinson (1969). Science and Technology in the Industrial Revolution. University of Toronto Press. pp. 491–95. ISBN 9780802016379.
  32. ^ Hunter, Louis C.; Bryant, Lynwood; Bryant, Lynwood (1991). A History of Industrial Power in the United States, 1730–1930, Vol. 3: The Transmission of Power. Cambridge, Massachusetts, London: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-08198-9.
  33. ^ Bob Casey, John & Horace Dodge (2010). "Henry Ford and Innovation" (PDF). The Henry Ford.
  34. ^ Dickens, Phill; Kelly, Michael; Williams, John R. (October 2013). "What are the significant trends shaping technology relevant to manufacturing?" (PDF). Government Office for Science UK.
  35. ^ Fishman, Charles (June 2017). "The Future of Zero-Gravity Living Is Here". Smithsonian Magazine.
  36. ^ Javier Borda, Hombre y Tecnología: 4.0 y más (Man and Technology: 4.0 and beyond). Sisteplant Publishers, 2018. ISBN 978-84-09-02350-9 (in Spanish)
  37. ^ "El escéptico de la Industria 4.0: 'Personas frente a robots'". ELMUNDO (in Spanish). 13 October 2014. Retrieved 13 September 2023.
  38. ^ "The Bournville Story" (PDF). Bournville Village Trust. 2010.
  39. ^ Price 1986, p. 115.
  40. ^ Pugh 2000, pp. 192-198.


  • Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Part 1. Taipei: Caves Books, Ltd.
  • Thomas, Dublin(1995). "Transforming Women's Work page: New England Lives in the Industrial Revolution 77, 118" Cornell University Press.
  • Price, Alfred. The Spitfire Story: Second edition. London: Arms and Armour Press Ltd., 1986. ISBN 0-85368-861-3.
  • Pugh, Peter. The Magic of a Name – The Rolls-Royce Story – The First 40 Years. Cambridge, England. Icon Books Ltd, 2000. ISBN 1-84046-151-9
  • Thomas, Dublin(1981). "Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826–1860: pp. 86–107" New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Biggs, Lindy (1996). The rational factory: architecture, technology, and work in America's age of mass production. Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 978-0-8018-5261-9.

Further reading[edit]

  • Christian, Gallope, D (1987) "Are the classical management functions useful in describing managerial processes?" Academy of Management Review. v 12 n 1, pp. 38–51
  • Peterson, T (2004) "Ongoing legacy of R.L. Katz: an updated typology of management skills", Management Decision. v 42 n10, pp. 1297–1308
  • Mintzberg, H (1975) "The manager's job: Folklore and fact", Harvard Business Review, v 53 n 4, July – August, pp. 49–61
  • Hales, C (1999) "Why do managers do what they do? Reconciling evidence and theory in accounts of managerial processes", British Journal of Management, v 10 n4, pp. 335–50
  • Mintzberg, H (1994) "Rounding out the Managers job", Sloan Management Review, v 36 n 1 pp. 11–26.
  • Rodrigues, C (2001) "Fayol's 14 principles then and now: A plan for managing today's organizations effectively", Management Decision, v 39 n10, pp. 880–89
  • Twomey, D. F. (2006) "Designed emergence as a path to enterprise", Emergence, Complexity & Organization, Vol. 8 Issue 3, pp. 12–23
  • McDonald, G (2000) Business ethics: practical proposals for organisations Journal of Business Ethics. v 25(2) pp. 169–85

External links[edit]