The Rest Is History: Learning the significance of interchangeable parts from manufacturing’s past

Centuries of discovery, invention and science, achieved by countless generations of individuals with superior genius, great imagination or just plain luck, have advanced the electrical industry to where it is today.

But individuals—from Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Edison to Nick Holonyak (inventor of the LED)—were not the forerunners of electrical contracting. Nor did electrical contractors descend from the likes of Volta, Ampere, Faraday, Maxwell, Hertz or Tesla.

Rather, the industrial ancestors with the closest resemblance to today’s ECs were the inside contractors who operated within manufacturing facilities in the 1800s. They took on portions of the work to be done in factories, sometimes because they had better equipment and often because they provided a source of badly needed manpower.

In a related context, electrical contracting today is a continuation of manufacturing beyond the factory. All of the world’s tangible products come from one or more of three general industries: agriculture, extraction and manufacturing. Electrical construction is functionally an extension of the third one—effectively, “open-air” manufacturing.

In essence, the mission of electrical contracting is to convey products on the “last mile” of their journey from the facility where they were manufactured to the final point of installation where they will remain.

Thus, there are lessons to be learned from manufacturing’s history, so let’s look at it. By the mid-1800s, globally well-regarded American manufacturers were steadily jumping ahead with innovative means and methods. Europeans were in awe of “The American System.”

The shining emblem of American industrial innovation was the implementation of interchangeable parts. It mostly began in the manufacture of muskets and other firearms. It was imposed by a federal government entity, the Ordnance Department, which had been created during the War of 1812.

In 1815, after the war was over, Col. Decius Wadsworth, head of the Ordnance Department, and his second-in-command, Lt. Col. George Bomford, surveyed a vast inventory of damaged weapons that might have been repaired in the field if they had had identical parts. They resolved to instill a new strategy of “uniformity” in the manufacturing of weapons in federal armories. As a consequence, throughout much of the 19th century, private industry snatched up the talents of former government armory supervisors and technicians as it progressively embraced the exacting standardization learned through the manufacture of muskets and rifles.

There is a little-known twist in the history of two main armories—one in Harper’s Ferry, Va., and the other in Springfield, Mass.—that holds some valuable takeaways for electrical contractors today. It goes this way.

The Springfield Armory consistently outperformed Harper’s Ferry, accomplishing everything better, cheaper and faster.

Among all else, Springfield overshadowed Harper’s Ferry by the most important measure: its successful production of interchangeable parts.

Management experts today might attribute these diverging outcomes to differences in the culture of the two organizations. Business guru Peter Drucker once insisted that culture is so critical to success that it “eats strategy for breakfast.” However, in our observation, the structure of an organization is what sets the table for that hearty breakfast.

You cannot swoop in and change the culture of an organization. You can, however, modify its structure, which can lead to a very different culture. The Springfield Armory had a far better organizational structure than Harper’s Ferry, which begat a better culture.

However, the greatest lesson to be learned from this bit of American history gets back to its centerpiece: the institution of interchangeable parts.

The products that today’s contractors purchase have long been standardized. Their uniformity seldom poses a problem. But the processes that electrical contractors follow in the regular course of business are far from uniform.

So, if there is one great takeaway from the experience of those 19th-century federal armories and their inside contractors, it is in the supreme value of standardization. Interchangeable parts were the issue of standardization; manufacturing processes were the essence of standardization.

An electrical contractor willing to drill down into the details and standardize the processes through which their company conveys products from beginning to end, on every job, will likely never suffer productivity problems. That advice applies equally to new construction and service and maintenance.

About the Author

Andrew P. McCoy and Fred Sargent

SARGENT is an electrical industry consultant focusing on service expertise. He can be reached at fred@sargent.com. MCCOY is the Preston and Catharine White Fellow and department head of the Department of Building Construction in the Myers-Lawson...

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