Industry gets a family tree

October 18, 1996

Theoretical biology is prom-ising to help researchers gain novel insights into manufacturing industry's successes and failures.

Researchers at Sheffield University believe that basic biological principles, such as evolutionary theory and cladistics, which maps the route by which organisms evolve from a common ancestor, could help in building a library of best business practice for companies looking to ensure their survival and competitiveness.

The rise and fall of cutlery, handtool and cutting tool-makers in Sheffield is the first subject. The aim is to produce a pilot classification system of companies past and present.

Researchers will have access to the archives of the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire and the Federation of British Hand Tool Manufacturers, among others.

Project leader Ian McCarthy says that the construction of manufacturing cladograms, which are like family trees, could help firms identify certain characteristics and the order in which they must be acquired to help ensure survival and success.

The researchers, based at Sheffield's department of mechanical engineering, will collaborate with taxonomy experts from the departments of animal and plant sciences and mathematics.

Dr McCarthy believes that the dynamics of manufacturing industry has much in common with biological systems. He says the origin of the car industry can be argued to stem from Karl Benz and his three-wheel automobile in the late 19th century.

"In manufacturing terms this could be regarded as the ancestor which evolved into the early craft shops, then into the first car factory systems and subsequently into mass manufacturing organisations. From its beginnings, around 15 types of discrete car manufacturing systems can now be identified," he says.

The history of car-making is littered with failures, such as Panhardlevassor, a French firm that was one of the world's leading car makers in the early 1890s. "It was the Rolls-Royce of its day and relied, like many other firms, exclusively on the crafts-type system of manufacture," he says.

In car firms elements that contribute to its "fingerprint identity" might include product quality, service and manufacturing techniques.

But as time progresses, the environment changes and those characteristics have to change to accommodate them," he says.

The rise of mass manufacturing and standardised parts is one of the big changes car makers have had to accommodate. "Panhardlevassor is a classic case of a car maker that suddenly became extinct. It failed to survive after the first world war because of its reluctance to adopt mass manufacturing characteristics," he says.

Dr McCarthy's work is backed by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

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