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factory

factory, place of production characterized by wage labor, the use of machinery, and the division of labor. The large-scale use of machinery differentiates factory production from simple manufacture, and the division of labor sets it apart from even the most elaborate handicraft establishments. Standardized goods are produced and sometimes sold more cheaply by the factory system, and occasionally the goods are better than those made by artisans. The factory system makes possible huge increases in output per man-hour though at the same time division of labor deprives individual workers of much of their sense of creativity.

In the 19th and first half of the 20th cent., the factory system gave rise to serious social problems, some of which persist. The tedious routine of assembly line work resulted in boredom and frustration among the workers, which can reduce productivity and product quality. The concentration of large plants and factories in urban areas also helped create urban congestion, pollution, slum dwellings, and traffic jams. To minimize these problems, employers have attempted to increase productivity and product quality by introducing robots to perform some of the tedious operations, by introducing systems that reduce the tedium of assembly-line work, and by involving workers in the plant management. Since the 1960s, the closing of factories in urban areas in the United States has reduced environmental pollution and other social problems associated with factories, but has also created decreased employment opportunities for unskilled workers.

In the late 20th cent. factory production became globalized, producing goods that are assembled in more than one country. Global production has induced multinational corporations to move their factories out of already industrialized countries to areas with lower overhead and cheaper labor. Because of the importance of factories to an area's economy, local governments in the United States have as a result offered subsidies to encourage companies to build or maintain factories in their areas. Congress also passed (1988) legislation requiring large employers to provide notice before closing a plant.

The first factory was probably a silk mill that opened in 1721 in Derby, England, and the proliferation of factories in Britain in the 18th and 19th cent. is the hallmark of the Industrial Revolution. Broadly speaking, large-scale factory development has moved historically and geographically from the production of fabrics in Great Britain in the 18th and 19th cents., to the manufacture of motor vehicles by Henry Ford and others in the United States in the 20th cent., to the production of computer-related goods in China, Vietnam, and other Asian countries in the late 20th and 21st cent.

See automation and division of labor.

See J. Tann, The Development of the Factory (1970); R. Linhart, The Assembly Line (1981); D. Gordon et al., Segmented Work, Divided Workers: The Historical Transformation of Labor in the United States (1982); D. Hounshell, The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the U.S. (1984); D. Noble, Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation (1985); M. Kranzberg, By the Sweat of Thy Brow (1986); J. B. Freeman, Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World (2018).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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