Not made in England: The lost art of manufacturing

Engineering is a triumph of the human spirit. So what happens when a nation loses the ability to manufacture the products it consumes? Cultural illiteracy, argues Stephen Bayley

I think we are heading for a Ruskin Revival. Or if I have anything to do with it, we are. The morning I sat down to write this, the radio told me Nick Clegg was on his way to a political meeting in the Midlands. His theme was to be the importance of manufacturing. I suppose we must be grateful for this late-flowering awareness. Touching, really, to watch politicians, attended by their pilot-fish consultants and advisors, come blinking into the harsh light of 21st century reality.

Maybe at my own expense I will publish a little Ruskin anthology so Clegg & Co can speak with authority about the pride, pleasure and dignity of real work.

First entry will be from Unto This Last, (1860) where it says: "That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings." I am not sure Clegg's audience will be noble and happy. They will certainly not be rich. I have a fantasy lecture to give any politician I can find. It goes like this: Imagine... you are sitting in your A319 on a flight to the sun. You are secure because the Airbus has sophisticated FEPS (Flight Envelope Protection System). And the A319's wings, whose main spar is machined miraculously from solid aluminium in a factory in North Wales, have never failed.

This plane is a boggling triumph of the human spirit. But you don't know that and what do you care with a glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to hand? Nor, essentially, is it the high technology that impresses. Old-fashioned rivets keep it in the air. Hundreds of thousands of solid, friction-lock rivets made of Reynolds 2024 Aluminium are keeping your arrogant and slightly tipsy arse from rapid descent to earth and thereafter into oblivion. Do you care?

You should. If you could explain to a child how a rivet works, you would be in possession of a very valuable knowledge of mechanics, the history of structures, material technology, stress, load paths and the aesthetic limitations of working in metal.

But you cannot explain it because you are a modern, post-industrial Briton who has lost touch with the beautiful and important culture of things. People who make things do not just have superior mechanical skills to lard-arsed incurious tourists flying towards a temporary nirvana bought on credit, they have superior cognitive skills, as well.

The riveter understands from first-hand-and-eye experience the relationship between function and form. It comes naturally to people who make things. And so, too, does an understanding of the quintessential relationship between effort and reward, lost in the flim-flam of post-industrial sophistry. Riveting is a fastening process that only works in some contexts. It's good, for example, at handling shear rather than tension loads. Got that? Otherwise, you might prefer to glue, screw, bolt, nail or weld. If you do not understand how these different techniques affect the function, character and appearance of the stuff we all use, then you are, as a consumer, the equivalent of illiterate. And it's not just fastenings: there is the matter of fabrication. Do you carve, forge, cast, injection-mould, laser-cut, robo-form or laminate? Don't understand? You are like a savage who stowed away on Captain Cook's HMS Resolution, now blinking in his grass skirt when introduced to Piccadilly. If you know how to make something, you understand everything about it. You appreciate its logic, its beauty and its meaning. And its value. And you can pass on these pleasures and benefits. Never mind an aeroplane, designing and making, say, a stacking chair is at the outer levels of human intellectual capability. Abstract reasoning, spatial awareness, advanced motor skills, a keen aesthetic sense are all required. In comparison, the attainments of a commercial lawyer or a fund manager seem crude and debased. And not very valuable. Design of stacking chairs should be essential to the National Curriculum.

Tools – a rivet-gun, for example – make us active and intelligent. Tools make us speculate and take risks. No one takes the back off their lap-top – you cannot interfere with it. Early Apple computers, manufactured in the day when beardy computer geeks roamed California, were assembled with screws that required a very special tool which was unavailable even to nerds. The unserviceable is the unknowable: with electronics understanding, and therefore control, passes to third parties. So, clever machines tend to make us passive dumb and uninquisitive. Searching Google is only, if we are radically honest, a very low order of intellectual inquiry. And, socially speaking: the more technological sophistication we enjoy, the greater the number of stupid jobs people have to do. In our cappuccino culture there are plenty of vacancies for baristas; very few for riveters.

So, in Britain we are spluttering towards Doomsday. We do not make – and are losing the knowledge to design – the goods we consume.

Politicians are generally ignorant of this. In 2009 Sir Alan Sugar, an 80s electronics entrepreneur and failed football investor, was given a ceremonial post by Gordon Brown's government, on account of his popular reputation as a "computer pioneer".

But Sugar's "industrial" business had become moribund because he made no investment in manufacturing, research, development, training or design. He made no investment in them, because he never actually had them in the first place. Instead, Sugar's business was based on the buying-in and assembling of imported Chinese components. He started with electric aerials for cars and graduated to primitive computers. Alan Sugar could not explain a rivet, still less a CMOS chip. Yet he was hailed by politicians, at least for a while, as some sort of industrial champion. Anyway, now the Chinese can do it better all by themselves and our industry czar does game shows. The inability to make things is not merely a matter of imminent economic bankruptcy, it is cultural bankruptcy too. Civilisations are remembered by their artifacts, not by their credit default swaps or PSBRs. Yet there is very, very little made that is essentially British. To say this is not quaint nostalgia or xenophobia, but a very loud alarm. Is it just crude sentiment that makes all of this so sad? No, because a country that loses the ability to make the goods it needs loses several other things. First, a sense of national identity. Second, the ability to maintain the upstream and downstream resources in education, research and development, design and marketing which manufacturing demands. It was a connection lost when we wanted the economy run like a casino, not a workshop.

This was all beautifully explained in a regrettably obscure 1944 pamphlet by W Julian King, a Californian engineer. King's Unwritten Laws of Engineering was recently re-issued by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, but should be incorporated into any electable government's manifesto.

The Unwritten Laws are not about physics, but behaviour. As opposed to the insolent selfishness of the usurer or the recklessness of the gambler, manufacturing requires social cohesion, personal responsibility, teamwork, commitment and vision. It needs clarity and accuracy, not obfuscation and dissimulation. Long-wave integrity is more valuable than short wave greed. The manufacturing process demands that individuals both be decisive and share information. And this process is on an orderly progressive scale that positively stimulates personal human development: you start with an idea, it becomes a more elaborate specification that is in turn mass-produced, distributed, consumed, recycled. At each stage, additional cumulative skills are required and generated. And, as King explains, this process teaches it's better to do a modest job well than an ambitious one badly. Somehow, that last sentence reminds us of the banking crisis.

It does not matter whether you call it engineering, technology, design, craft or, possibly, even art. Whatever it is called, a system which gives priority to an engagement with products over a lust for quick returns is a more stable and wholesome one than a system where derivatives are a more reliable source of wealth than making a teapot. The loss of manufacturing is poignant in a country that produced Josiah Wedgwood, a man who sensed all the opportunities of the Industrial Revolution. He knew how to make things, and how to sell them. He employed designers. He understood market segmentation and brand development. But he also knew how to use a pyrometer. Ruskin, meditating as he took direct action and swept the streets, knew that people who understand how to make things are morally and practically satisfied.

It really is all about pride, pleasure and dignity. Got that, Nick?

Collect 2011: the international art fair for contemporary objects takes place at the Saatchi Gallery, London from 6-9 May 2011. For more information visit

A manifesto for manufacturers

The Unwritten Laws of Engineering by W Julian King was first published in 1944 as three articles in Mechanical Engineering magazine. It has been in print as a book ever since. Recent editions, including a trade version, The Unwritten Laws of Business, have revisions and additions by James G Skakoon.

However menial and trivial your early assignments may appear, give them your best efforts.

Demonstrate the ability to get things done.

Develop a "Let's go see!" attitude.

Don't be timid – speak up – express yourself and promote your ideas

Strive for conciseness and clarity in oral or written reports; be extremely careful of the accuracy of your statements.

One of the first things you owe your supervisor is to keep him or her informed of all significant developments.

Do not overlook the steadfast truth that your direct supervisor is your "boss".

Be as particular as you can in the selection of your supervisor.

Whenever you are asked by your manager to do something, you are expected to do exactly that.

Cultivate the habit of seeking other peoples' opinions and recommendations.

Promises, schedules, and estimates are necessary and important instruments in a well-ordered business.

In dealing with customers and outsiders, remember that you represent the company, ostensibly with full responsibility and authority.

Do not try to do it all yourself.

Every manager must know what goes on in his or her domain.

Cultivate the habit of "boiling matters down" to their simplest terms.

Cultivate the habit of making brisk, clean-cut decisions.

Learn project management skills and techniques, then apply them to the activities that you manage.

Make sure that everyone – managers and subordinates – has been assigned definite positions and responsibilities within the organisation.

Make sure that all activities and all individuals are supervised by someone competent in the subject matter involved.

Never misrepresent a subordinate's performance during performance appraisals.

Make it unquestionably clear what is expected of employees.

You owe it to your subordinates to keep them properly informed.

Never miss a chance to commend or reward subordinates for a job well done.

Always accept full responsibility for your group and the individuals in it.

One of the most valuable personal traits is the ability to get along with all kinds of people.

Never underestimate the extent of your professional responsibility and personal liability.

Let ethical behaviour govern your actions and those of your company.

Be aware of the effect that your personal appearance and behaviour have on others and, in turn, on you.

Beware of what you commit to writing and of who will read it.

Analyse yourself and your subordinates.

Maintain your employability as well as that of your subordinates.

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