Before the start of the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called together a group of advisors to determine what would be required to launch the maximum effort to provide modern war material at a rate previously unknown. Newly-conceived weapons and ammunition of all kinds - tanks, vehicles, ships, and of course, fighter and bomber aircraft - would be required in vast volumes and on unprecedented schedules. These people were recognized manufacturing experts from those industries, with the auto industry being the focal point since mass production would be the key. The American auto industry was far and away the world leader in mass production, which had become a part of American culture. Included in an advisory capacity were prominent manufacturing engineers and special machine tool people who had played a major role in advancing mass production.
Nothing was sacred in this effort and every resource would be made available, including existing production facilities. They would be retooled and new facilities would be built. Many of the items to be produced weren’t originally designed for mass production. They now had to be redesigned based on the advice of those who knew how to mass produce products. Components would now have to be made that would be interchangeable and fit any generic mating part that may come down an assembly line.
With the exception of the automotive industry, much of manufacturing at that time was still being done on a craft basis. Parts were custom-made to fit a particular mating part, which is not conducive to mass production. The American automotive industry had revolutionized manufacturing by adapting, perfecting and exploiting mass production techniques. The special machine tool is integral to mass production, as it is custom designed to produce precisely duplicate parts in high volume as first demonstrated by Eli Whitney.
Imaginative manufacturing processes were devised and the special machine tools to produce hundreds of thousands of different parts for these war goods were retooled or designed and built from scratch. There was massive subcontracting undertaken spreading the effort throughout the country.
Before Pearl Harbor and the actual declaration of war, the production effort was known as “Lend Lease.” It supplied much of the material to the U.S. allies, including the Soviets. Joseph Stalin was said to have toasted American productivity as the key to winning the war. The effort was supercharged following Pearl Harbor and was unparalleled in history. Many, like Stalin, would say that it was responsible for winning the war.
A closer view of some of the specific accomplishments, new products, their manufacturing methods, and the time it took for them to arrive at the front lines for the first time would seem incredible, even today. There were no rules, precedents, or guidelines for satisfying these kinds of requirements. It was the miracle of mass production created by a culture of Yankee ingenuity.
The Boeing B-29 Superfortress was designed in 1940 and its maiden flight took place in 1942. It was by far the most advanced of its day. It could fly faster, farther, and higher than any other in the world. Production began in mid-1943 and by mid-1945, 3,765 had been built. Its builder was selected by a competitive bid and prototype construction process.
On three occasions, while on return flights from bombing runs over Japan, B-29s found it necessary to make an emergency landing in Vladivostoc in the former Soviet Union. The crews were eventually released, but the aircraft were confiscated. The Soviet air force trailed other industrialized nations dramatically, and they had to find a way to accelerate that capability. The Tupolev TU-4 was a reverse-engineered B-29, down to the one million rivets and including most avionics and other peripherals. It took two years to get to the maiden flight, about the same as the U.S. original concept. Boeing had been working on a concept privately before the war. The Soviets built nearly 1,000 over the next decade. Variations for commercial use were also built.
As often referenced, Admiral Yamamoto’s worst fears would be realized – Pearl Harbor had awakened a sleeping giant.
“And that the enemy mind was once more becoming belatedly aware of its gross miscomprehension of the source of American strength became apparent on February 11, 1943,” as Albert Speer took over as the German Minister of Munitions and Armaments - referencing American industrial might.
What do you suppose happened to the rulebook during this period? It’s certain that many traditions, standard methods, and paradigms were scrapped. The rules referred to are not those relating to integrity, morality, and fairness, but those relating to encouraging unrestricted free thought and finding better ways to accomplish their objectives. Yankee ingenuity involved more than just the engineering and technical aspects, but also the organizational aspects to find ways around traditional barriers that would restrict the extraordinary progress that would be required.
So now we have seen in three important periods in American history that when advances in manufacturing and technology accelerated to levels not previously thought to be possible, it was in a “no rules environment.” The very beginning of industry in the U.S., the circumstances in the pioneering environment in the advent of the computer and related technologies and the demands of WWII had a common denominator: Imagination, passion, and courage; (Yankee ingenuity) unencumbered by tradition, standards, rules, and paradigms produced innovation and dramatic advances.
There were no precedents to establish direction. In many other fields the early discoveries triggered similar circumstances, and new playing fields without rules came into being.
During the Vietnamese war, it became apparent that a way had to be found to patrol the 3000 miles of waterways that were the supply routes for the enemy. A very maneuverable, high-speed gunboat with a shallow draft would be required. Such a vessel was not known to exist at the time. It was felt that the pleasure craft industry might be able to come up with something close. A potential supplier meeting was organized and requirements given to the attendees.
One of those suppliers was building fiberglass pleasure craft similar in nature to the specifications except it was a different length. The boats being built utilized the recently-perfected water jet propulsion system that would be ideal in the shallow canals and rivers. The jet mechanism did not extend below the hull outline on an already shallow draft boat.
The company offered to build a prototype at its cost. The Navy asked for drawings and specifications of the proposed vessel before agreeing. The company’s response was that they could have the prototype built and ready for initial testing in one week, but did not have time to make drawings, write specifications, or perform other bureaucratic requirements. The first gunboat prototype was in the water for tests a week later. The performance record of these boats built for that conflict was outstanding.
Do you think that in most circumstances that company would even be allowed to submit a proposal in today’s business environment, either with the U.S. government or with business? Without the supplier’s imagination, courage, and passion what would those boats have looked like, and when would they have been available? This is a classic example of what can result from open-minded people putting an important objective ahead of rulebooks, and paradigms - both the buyers and the seller.
Christy Borth, Masters of Mass Production (The Bobbs – Merrill Company, 1945) 84.