Standardization is a critical feature of designs designed for industrial mass production. It allows components that make up the product to be put together with very little or no modification.
Standardized components often allow for a higher degree of interchangeability between products, ensuring that components from one product can be exchanged with another with little or no need for adaptation (Think IKEA).
History of Standardization
The first instances of standardization can be traced back to the ancient world of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who ruled from 221BC to 210BC, instigating an early arms development standardization process. Later, the Romans commonly used uniform elements for the mass manufacturing of weapons and armour. Likewise, during the Middle Ages, European artisans used a large degree of standardization to produce items ranging from weapons to floor tiles serially. However, in the early 1800s, standardization began to be used more widely and systematically in the design of mass-manufactured items, especially in the Portsmouth Block Mills Royal Navy, from 1803. Marc Isambard Brunel’s Precision instruments were used at this quayside factory to achieve a remarkably high degree of standardization in the manufacture of wooden and metal rigging blocks needed in vast quantities during the Napoleonic Wars.
Precision machines increase standardization.
A variety of precision machine tools, including numerous lathes, milling machines and planers, were introduced during the early 1800s, all of which helped increase manufacturers’ ability to reach previously undreamt-of levels of standardization. And a better degree of production quality came with greater standardization, which allowed manufacturers to realize the much-longed-for dream of interchangeability of components. One of the greatest proponents of standardization was the engineering genius Joseph Whitworth, regarded as “the best mechanic in the world[sic]” during his lifetime. It was Whitworth who set standards for screw threads. At the same time, his creation of remarkably accurate instruments, such as micrometres that could accurately measure up to one-millionth of an inch, heralded unparalleled levels of standardization.
Standardization of firearm manufacturing
In America, the most notable standard-setting pioneers come from small arms manufacturing, with both Eli Whitney and Thomas Blanchard helping to develop this idea through the manufacture of firearms. The latter famously engineered a copying lathe capable of manufacturing several gunstocks simultaneously, all with a precise collection of standard measurements. This highly advanced machine, known as Blanchard’s lathe, increased production rates, thoughtfully and eventually helped usher in the industrialization of war.
Manufacturers of all kinds, particularly those manufacturing sewing machines and bicycles, soon picked up the standardization techniques found in the armouries of ‘the North.’ Standardization, along with the concomitant interchangeability, gradually became known as the American System and was how large-scale industrial production became a fact of life in America and elsewhere. Today, standardization is an essential consideration for designing products for industrial production since it essentially helps items be produced easier, quicker, and cheaper.
Fiell, C. J., & Fiell, P. M. (2019). 100 Ideas that changed design. Laurence King Publishing.