151: Lindy Biggs’ Rational Factory

In The Rational Factory: Architecture, Technology, and Work in America’s Age of Mass Production, Lindy Biggs examines the relationship between rationalized, mechanized mass production and the buildings in which the new assembly lines were housed.  Focusing primarily on the Ford Motor Company, with supporting evidence ranging from Oliver Evans’ flour mill to the professionalization of engineering, Biggs argues that the rational factory combined people, machines, and architecture into an organic, highly efficient machine.

Biggs tells a rather linear narrative of the development of the rational factory.  While Oliver Evans had designed a mill in the 1780s that could continuously process wheat into flour (wheat entered the top floor and exited the bottom floor as flour), his integration of form and workflow was relatively ignored until the second half of the 19th century.  Early 19th century textile mills had only minor interest in controlling workflow.  However, after the civil war, the rise of the new profession of industrial engineering, in combination with the proliferation of new “processing industries” like meatpacking and steelmaking, led to renewed interest in workflow design, especially in the context of both a competitive market and worker resistance.


Mechanical engineers designed machines, but industrial engineers designed whole factories, which meant that workers no longer had any control over or even complete knowledge of the whole manufacturing process – and the engineering profession had designed itself into legitimacy and power.  Biggs uses case studies of a series of Ford plants, from the first factory (a craft shop), to the Old and New Highland Park plants (which used single-purpose machinery), and finally to the River Rouge plant, which was so carefully, holistically, and efficiently planned that, like Evans’ mill over a century before, it could take in raw materials and spit out a finished product.  It was a massive, 1000-acre building all on one floor that used conveyors and highly specialized stationary workers (working within paternalistic capitalism, of course) to move pieces and manufacture products.

While her discussion of the mills is somewhat oversimplified (they did have some throughprocessing) and her account of labor could use more attention to the workers, Biggs clearly shows the development of industrial manufacturing along a particular line of thinking, the Fordist “rational machine.”

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