This is a sweeping generalisation, but I love factory tours. Any time I get to see how something is made, where I can see talented artisans creating things, with their hands, minds and with devilishly clever and intricately thought out machines, I feel fascination. It also puts me in touch with the humanity of their products. You see, despite the decades of propaganda about mass production, almost everything is, at some point in the process, touched and assembled by human hands. Whether those things are made with love, or made parasitically, upon the broken backs of heartbroken people, matters a lot to me.
In every step, whether a machine is involved or some clever jigs and fixtures, you can see masses of ingenious human thought and invention in evidence. Sometimes those humans are working with dedication to their craft, sometimes with extreme skill as a result of the hours and hours they have spent perfecting their task, so that it appears deft and facile. On occasion, you see people working like zombies – the living dead going through the motions against a ruthless clock. It’s those products I like to avoid. A factory tour shows you which products those are.
You can see factory tours on YouTube, these days. Some of my favourites are guitar factory tours. I am a little partial to the odd guitar. What you can see is that there are very skilled people that care, using extremely sophisticated tools and machines, to produce a quality product, consistently. Most of the guitar companies that have posted factory tours on the web also inadvertently reveal that their people are not fully protected against organic solvent fumes or other industrial hazards. Health and safety measures are fair, but not perfect. The owners of the factory focus on production, productivity and consistency, with the well being of their skilled staff evidently a secondary concern.
Many of these same factory owners produce cheaper instruments in the Far East – only, you very rarely see factory tours from their Far Eastern plants. I wonder why that is? In the few factory tour videos on YouTube from Far Eastern guitar builders, you note that conditions are often very much worse for the workers. Dust control is not evident. There are no protections against excessive, prolonged noise exposure. The atmosphere is not controlled. There are more trip and pinch hazards. There are fewer clever machines, with less comprehensive operator guards in place to protect fingers and hands, or other limbs.
Instead, you see people doing a lot more of the work by hand, but taking just as much care, if not more, on the finish and quality of their work, compared to those in the flagship plants with all the clever mechanisation. With simpler tools and more human work content, the consistency may not be quite as good, but when they put their heart into it, the result can be as good as, or even better than, the result from a more mechanised plant where the human refinements never happen, because they have been engineered out of the process, or where they happen with less attention to detail, skill and love.
You see, the Far Eastern workers are just as dedicated to doing a good job. They spend just as many hours getting good at what they do. In some cases, because more of the work is done by hand and is very labour intensive, the results are arguably better, on a good day. I wonder why they are rewarded so poorly, relative to the workers in the flagship factories, whose products command ten times the prices for an equivalent functional guitar (a Telecaster, for example).
This isn’t a rant to beat up on how we treat Far Eastern artisans, but it is recognition that the creative, beautiful things they make can be exceptional value, given the depressed prices they command.
I love to see glass blowing, welding, fine woodwork, the construction of formula one cars and all manner of production, in process, live. To me, it’s as interesting as seeing a live music act. I love the sounds and the smells. I love it when I see ingenuity and creativity fused together. The best guitar factory tour I have yet seen on YouTube was for Yamaha guitars, strangely enough. That factory is in the Far East, yet none of the American factory tours I have so far viewed hold a candle to it.
The dark side, however, is where you see places that are sweatshops, where nobody gives a damn, where the production process is rushed to make a larger profit, at the expense of product quality and where the contempt for workers and customers alike is writ large. There are plenty of those kinds of factories, regrettably.
In my youth, I worked in a steelworks, where the steel quality didn’t really meet best of breed standards. My boss was sent to Germany to find out why. He discovered that whereas the rolling mill guides were polished and treated gently and carefully, when installed, in Germany, the contrast was that in Australia, the guides were rough cast, contaminated by oil and grease and slogged into alignment by people wielding sledge hammers. Consequently, the Australian steel emerged from the line with micro-imperfections that added up to faster oxidisation, less tensile strength and less consistency in properties. Polishing the guides makes all the difference. To do that, you have to take time and care about the quality of the steel you make. You have to put the sledge hammer away and begin to use micrometers. Our plant didn’t. It’s not there anymore.
Getting a glimpse behind the product marketing, the pretty, in-store, point-of-sale presentation and the sometimes entirely undeserved hype to see how the products are really made, by whom and how, while reading between the lines of the very layout, tempo and condition of the factory, tells you whether the product has been made with integrity and care, or contempt and cynicism. As a consumer, that’s a very important piece of information.
I know it’s a bit of a strange fascination, for an artist, but if you care about the making of beautiful things, it’s not such a stretch to be interested in how every day, so-called mass-produced objects come into the world. It can reveal quite a lot. It also demolishes the artificial snob boundary between artists and artisans. There is art in everything, if you look closely enough.
My hope is that one day, the status of mere artisans, working in production lines, is raised to the point of encouraging their individual creativity and originality, so that their imaginations, as well as their craft skills, are brought to bear on production of mass-customisation goods. I don’t want to live in a throw-away society. I would like to live in a world where everything made is valuable, has value and is valued. There will be very few antiques dating back to the twentieth century, largely because we lost sight of the need to make things that last, which have integral, structural solidity to them. We made everything like they were tissues. That was a terrible mistake and one which I hope we do not perpetuate too far into the twenty first century. There isn’t enough planet Earth to turn every precious, scarce resource into thrown away garbage. Profit isn’t a good enough reason to do so.