With July 4th just around the corner, I decided to do a list of American inventions that had a strong impact on manufacturing.  Happy 238th Birthday, USA!

Interchangeable Parts

Before interchangeable parts, machines were made from scratch and did not conform to any universal standard. This made both production and repair of machinery time consuming and difficult. Interchangeable parts in machinery were invented by Eli Whitney, most famous for his invention of the cotton gin.  Whitney was awarded a two-year contract to build 10,000 muskets for the US government in 1798, as the nation was preparing for a possible war with France.  Having not produced any muskets by 1800, Whitney went to Washington D.C. to explain how he had been spending his contract money.  He gave a very impressive performance, assembling a musket before the Founding Fathers’ eyes from parts seemingly picked at random. Some historians claim that the parts were marked beforehand and weren’t truly interchangeable.  However, Whitney was the first big proponent of interchangeable parts in America and helped to spread their usage throughout the nation and abroad.  All machinery parts used in manufacturing, including Craftech’s plastic fasteners, are now made to universal standards.

2)      Light Bulb

Thomas Edison is a celebrated American inventor.  In 1879, he demonstrated the use of the first electric light bulb.  Like all inventions, the light bulb was not invented in a vacuum-patents had been issued to several British scientists in the 1840s.  Edison’s company worked to perfect the light bulb and make electricity available in homes across the country.  Electric light made companies able to institute night shifts for their workers in order to increase production.  The increased availability of electricity also promoted the development of modern machinery.

3)      Telephone

Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in 1876.  Can you imagine receiving orders by letter and having to write to all of your suppliers?  The telephone made conducting business much faster and more efficient.

4)      Ford Model T and the Assembly Line

Henry Ford’s 1908 Ford Model T was not the first automobile.  Cars had been in development in Europe since the 19th century but they were expensive and rare.  Ford invented the assembly line manufacturing technique, allowing his company to produce cars faster and cheaper than ever before.  Each car would move through the factory on a conveyer belt past employees.  Each worker would add one element to the product, using interchangeable parts.  This method was much more profitable than simply having a few people build a car entirely from scratch together.  Ford’s technique changed the very nature of manufacturing.  The increased availability of automobiles also made transporting goods easier.

5)      Plastic

We’ve discussed the invention of plastic on this blog before, so I’ll keep this short, but I just couldn’t resist!  Parkesine and Bakelite, two early plastics, were invented and patented in Europe.  But most credit the beginning of commercial plastic development to Charles Goodyear’s (born in New Haven, CT) discovery of vulcanization.

6)      Industrial Robots

Building on Ford’s efficient assembly line idea, in 1954, George Devol developed the first manufacturing robot.  He called his product “Unimation” (Universal Automation).  Devol sold his first robot to General Motors in 1960.  Ten years later, Devol bought a patent for the first robot designed for computer control from an inventor at Stanford University.  He developed the design into a product called PUMA (Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly).  This robot resembled a human arm and was used for high speed manufacturing assembly work.  The introduction of manufacturing robots has greatly reduced the demand for expensive, error-prone manual labor.    

7)      Sketchpad and CAD

In 1963, a doctoral student at MIT named Ivan Sutherland developed a program called Sketchpad.  This program is considered to be the father of modern computer-aided design (CAD).  CAD is a powerful engineering tool, both for software engineers and manufacturing engineers.  At Craftech, we use the CAD program SolidWorks to create both 2D and 3D images of our products to share with customers.  CAD is also the tool responsible for video games (also, the Matrix… :-D).

8)      ARPANET and the World Wide Web

In the late 1960’s, there were only a few powerful research computers in the United States.  This scarcity meant that many researchers were not able to access the information held by these computers and were at a professional disadvantage.  In 1969, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) went into development.  The purpose of the project was to create a database of research that could be easily access by computer anywhere in the country.  This project eventually transformed into the Internet where you are currently reading this blog post!  The easy availability of information over the internet has completely revolutionized a manufacturer’s ability to find information and even new customers.

9)    Personal Computer

In 1976, Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak released the Apple 1.  The Apple 1 was the first ready-out-of-the-box computer available to the general public.  The machine was much slower than today’s machines and came with almost no software.  Owners needed to design their own software.  Nevertheless, the Apple 1 was a huge step in the direction of our modern day working world, where every office worker uses a personal computer for much of the day.

10)    3D Printing

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is a hot topic in manufacturing nowadays.  This technology was invented by Chuck Hull, founder of 3D systems.  3D printing relies heavily on CAD technology, in that the printer creates a real-life object based on a computer generated model.  This process has been used to successfully create all sorts of products, from surgical implants to food and jewelry.  While 3D printing is not yet a suitable technique for mass production, many manufacturers find it useful for prototyping.

There are lots of really awesome American inventions-way too many to include in this list.  Did I miss your favorite?  Let me know in the comments section below.

Looking for more information on plastic manufacturing?  Check out our free Glossary of Manufacturing Terms.


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