29th April, 2018

Factories may not be pretty but we’d be nowhere without them

I live in London, but I think it is healthy, every now and then, to spend time in the country amid fields and farms, understanding where food comes from and how rural communities work. Similarly, I think everyone should visit a proper factory occasionally, to see how almost all the manufactured products we buy are actually made.

I visit various factories every month — they make bicycles, medical equipment and foodstuffs — and I’m glad to say there are still tens of thousands of these giant workshops in this country.

We invented such facilities in the 18th century, the most famous pioneer being Sir Richard Arkwright, who obtained patents for carding and spinning machinery. His original Nottingham textile mill had 300 workers and was possibly the first of its kind in the world. The closest modern-day equivalent is probably Hyundai’s Ulsan complex in South Korea. The five connected factories there cover an area of more than 150m sq ft and its 34,000 staff make more than 1.5m cars a year. Interestingly, it is also the richest city in the country — a place where drivers can earn more than £70,000 a year.

To me, such giant plants represent the heart of modern industry. They are not just utilitarian structures, but a symbol of the modern world and a physical manifestation of how man can conquer nature and bring about plenty.

The story of big factories is well told in a hefty new volume by Joshua Freeman called Behemoth. A substantial majority of Britons work in the service industries or the public sector, and so take such physical engines of production for granted.

In recent decades, moreover, the West has been offshoring manufacturing industries such as electronics, footwear, furniture and clothing in countries such as China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Indonesia. Even in lower-wage economies, factories have been shedding staff due to automation. For example, Foxconn cut employee numbers from 110,000 to 50,000 in a single smartphone factory in China, amid heavy investment in robotics.

Outsourcing factories to southeast Asia might appear to make financial sense for individual firms, but deindustrialisation has huge economic consequences. Big parts of Britain have failed to recover jobs and relative prosperity since our steel, shipbuilding, shoe and clothing factories shut. Making products tends to involve a lot of added value, and it generates strong demand for other goods and services as well as indirect employment. While fewer than 10% of jobs in this country are in factories, another 10% depend on that output.

Manufacturing is disproportionately innovative, and most research and development expenditure is incurred by heavy industry. Tangible exports are also a result of manufacturing; our trade deficit has grown as manufacturing has shrunk as a proportion of our total economy. However, many people dislike factories. They don’t want to work in them and they don’t want them near their homes. They see factories as ugly, noisy, dirty places — brutalist sheds offering boring, repetitive jobs. They would prefer it if such gritty places were far away.

Others, though, have harboured more romantic views of manufacturing. In 1938, the photographer and painter Charles Sheeler said of Ford’s vast River Rouge car plant near Detroit: “I speak in the tongue of my times, the mechanical, the industrial. Anything that works efficiently is beautiful. Our Factories are our substitutes for religious expression.”

Factories are, by their nature, practical places that tend to have a limited lifespan. They are not built for ornamentation but to make goods efficiently. Functionality is all. Almost no such buildings last more than a century, and most go out of date after 50 years, changing technology having made them redundant. Take the train from New York to Baltimore and you can see mile after mile of derelict factories — testament to how manufacturers dump old structures in the wrong locations.

I can recall working in my late teens in pharmaceutical and packaging factories on the trading estate in the village where I grew up. All that industrial property has since been repurposed to satisfy the different demands of the 21st century. New factories tend to be much cleaner and employ far fewer staff, yet thanks to automation, they are far more productive than they used to be. Few would argue that factories are beautiful, but if we want to enjoy a rising standard of living then we should embrace them.