‘Make, Think, Imagine’, by Lord Browne of Madingley

Several years ago, a friend took me to an auction of old watches in Switzerland. He told me he was keen to buy one made by Breguet; I had no idea what he was talking about, but I went with him to the pre-sale exhibition, and what I saw opened my eyes to a branch of bespoke manufacturing that I had never seen before. Here were masterpieces of ingenuity – small worlds of gears, springs, wheels and ratchets, all in the service of telling the time. Some were so elaborate that they were called ‘grande complications’. I fell in love with the idea that such effort had gone into achieving a simple objective of measurement, which can now be achieved by an inexpensive digital watch.

The watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet was a master of the handmade and introduced a series of innovations that revolutionised the reliability and accuracy of the pocket watch during the late eighteenth century. Napoleon bought three of Breguet’s watches and used them to coordinate his army’s actions on the battlefield. Throughout his long career, Breguet’s quest was to perfect the pocket watch and, as a result, every one of his timepieces was unique. His most famous watch, commissioned by French queen Marie Antoinette in 1783, was so complex that it took forty-four years to complete and left Breguet’s workshop only after both queen and watchmaker were dead. When it was finally finished, the Breguet No. 160 was a masterpiece of mechanical complexity. It kept track of the date (including the ability to accommodate leap years), chimed the hour, had a power reserve indicator, a stopwatch and even incorporated a thermometer.

Breguet’s approach to making was the antithesis of his contemporary, the French engineer Honoré Blanc. In November 1790, Blanc put on a dramatic demonstration for a group of politicians and generals. By selecting components, apparently at random, from bins arranged in front of him, he quickly assembled several working muskets. . France was in the throes of bloody revolution; it had an urgent need for affordable and reliable weapons. So the crux of Blanc’s sales pitch was clear; it did not take a highly skilled craftsman to build a musket – if the gun parts were designed by an engineer and machined to meet pre-specified criteria, they could be assembled by almost anyone. Blanc’s approach delivered guns that were not only cheaper than the competition, but also far more reliable. By the time he died in 1801, his factory at Roanne in central France was turning out more than ten thousand identical muskets a year for Napoleon’s armies. This was a new way to manufacture that demonstrated the efficiency gained by using interchangeable parts to make exact copies.

Blanc’s mass production of guns and Breguet’s bespoke crafting of pocket watches were very different ways of making things, but both would change our world profoundly. Breguet’s watches paved the way to the accurate timekeeping that rely on to run our lives and our economies, and Blanc’s gun-assembly technique pointed the way to modern mass production, which has been the engine of global economic progress for the last two centuries. In both developed and developing countries, manufacturing contributes disproportionately to exports, investment in innovation and productivity growth.

Mass Customisation: Efficient, Personalised and On-Demand

In the eighteenth century Blanc, the mass-producer, and Breguet, the master craftsman occupied opposite ends of the manufacturing spectrum. Had they been alive today, their work would have been much more closely aligned. To make his bespoke watches, Breguet had to make many of the components by hand. Today,  makers have access to huge catalogues of standardised parts, an idea pioneered by the industrial manufacturer Blanc.

I saw the power of this approach when I visited Surrey Satellite Technology. Its CEO, Martin Sweeting, explains that ‘the first four decades of the space era were dominated by a few superpowers who alone possessed the knowledge and budgets to undertake the enormous technical and programmatic challenges posed.’ That has changed dramatically during this century. Sweeting shows me a range of micro-satellites under construction. These have altered the economics of space profoundly; the key to reducing costs has been the enormous advances in the manufacture of microelectronics. Most of these small satellites are made from off-the-shelf components that are also used in consumer electronic devices. Some of them use a smartphone to navigate and take images of Earth. ‘Space is now within the reach of small companies, universities and even high schools,’ says Sweeting. The falling cost and improving capabilities of constellations of small satellites will stimulate new applications in communications, Earth observation and more.

The makers of small satellites solved the challenge of integrating and adapting existing technologies to create new and powerful capabilities, bridging the difference between the bespoke and the mass-produced. Nanotechnology and synthetic biology promise to bridge this same gap by, for example, creating materials and cells that can self-heal and adapt themselves to changing environments. These technologies are moving forward in parallel with great advances in 3D printing, robotics, artificial intelligence and other forms of automation. Together, these different of engineering herald a revolution in the way we make and consume.

The rest of this editorial will be published at a later time.