The History and Evolution of Manufacturing 

From desk lamps and hairbrushes to dining tables and bed frames, the manufacturing process has become so seamless that it can easily produce any item you need. For centuries, the manufacturing industry has driven economic growth, streamlined efficiency and enhanced precision in product creation. It has also created countless jobs for Americans, with 11.7 million employed in the industry in 2018 alone.  

However, this wasn’t always the case. Before the Industrial Revolution, manufacturing was a distinctly different and simpler industry. During this era, manufacturing heavily relied on manual labor, which was primarily performed by humans, animals and waterwheels. Skilled artisans generally crafted their wares by hand, but this manual labor limited the quantity of goods produced. 

So, how did we transition to our current era, where products are created rapidly and available at the click of a button? Today, we explore the history of manufacturing, from the Industrial Revolution to the modern advancements of Industry 4.0. 

The Industrial Revolution 

The first stop in our journey begins in the late 1700s when the introduction of the following technological innovations in Britain not only improved the production of goods and materials but also led to the urbanization of  small towns and the creation of more jobs for workers: 

  • Steam engines
    Steam engines use pressurized steam to perform mechanical work. In the mid-1700s, they provided a constant source of power so that factories, mines and mills could work around the clock, producing more goods in less time. 
  • Factories
    Not to be outdone by the steam engines, factories were essential for forming the primary areas for mechanized production. Whether it was steel mills, cotton mills or any other type of industry, there was a dedicated factory for every manufacturing process. 
  • Textile machinery
    The spinning jenny, flying shuttle and power loom brought efficiency to spinning yarn and thread. In a short period, producing fabric became quicker and required less human labor. 

 The Second Industrial Revolution: The Assembly Line 

Throughout the late 1700s and 1800s, manufacturing took the rest of Europe and North America by storm. Then, in 1901, car manufacturer Ransom E. Olds created the first assembly line. This process sped up the automobile assembly process, allowing Olds to increase his output by 500% in one year.  

Assembly lines consist of a manufacturing process in which workers assemble a product step by step as it progresses along a conveyor belt. These lines consist of multiple workstations, each staffed by workers who are responsible for specific tasks in the assembly process. As the product moves farther down the assembly line, it gradually takes on its final form, with each step contributing to the transformation from raw materials to finished product. 

The Third Industrial Revolution: Lean Manufacturing 

In 1948, the Toyota Motor Corporation introduced lean manufacturing, a process that streamlined production flow even further. It aimed to reduce waste in several areas, including:  

  • Overproduction 
  • Unnecessary transportation 
  • Overprocessing 
  • Excess inventory 

Toyota has continued making improvements to lean manufacturing over the years, renaming the process the “Just in Time System.” This new version concentrates on making only “what is needed, when it is needed and in the amount needed.”  

The Fourth Industrial Revolution: Industry 4.0 

Fast forward to today and you’ve found yourself in the middle of the latest revolution in manufacturing: Industry 4.0. With the ever-adapting advancements of technology, engineers in manufacturing have integrated digital technologies into many aspects of the industry. Industry 4.0 aims to improve not only manufacturing but also supply chain management and product lifecycle management with the help the following emerging technologies. 

Internet of Things (IoT) 

IoT involves a network of physical devices digitally connected to share data over the internet. For instance, in a candy factory, smart cameras use IoT to scan and ensure each candy box is filled correctly. If an error occurs, the camera’s IoT system instructs the machine to correct it. IoT aims to collect data, automate processes and enhance manufacturing efficiency. 

Cloud Computing 

With the creation of Industry 4.0, new technology is creating data at an astonishing speed, making it more challenging for manufacturers to physically store their data. Enter cloud computing, a platform that makes it easy for companies to store and process large amounts of data on remote servers. This saves them space on the premises and allows storage of  significantly more data. 

Some of the other advanced technologies currently changing the face of manufacturing include: 

  • Artificial intelligence 
  • Smart manufacturing 
  • Digital twins 
  • Big data and analytics 
  • Autonomous robots 

Be a Pioneer in Manufacturing With a Master’s Degree From UW–Madison 

From steam-engine-fueled machines to smart factories filled with autonomous devices, the manufacturing industry has made significant improvements since its birth over 200 years ago.  

Staying at the forefront of advancements in manufacturing, UW–Madison’s online Master of Science in Manufacturing Systems Engineering is here to provide you with the advanced knowledge and skills needed to advance your career in the industry. Whether you’re currently employed in food and beverage, aerospace, automotive or another manufacturing industry, our 30-credit online program provides a robust blend of technology and leadership courses. 

We also understand that maintaining balance while working, raising a family and going to school requires a lot of time and energy. That’s why our program is 100% online, giving you the flexibility to complete coursework at your convenience. UW–Madison also accepts students year-round, so you can start on one of three convenient start dates offered annually.  

Browse our course offerings and learn more about the online manufacturing systems engineering program.   


Apply today!