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The coalescence of parts

Vertical integration

Through the study of the history of precision in manufacturing, author Simon Winchester explains the emergence of the paradigm of “interchangeable parts” throughout the 18th century, where identical parts could be exchanged if broken or malfunctioning.1 This wasn't possible before reaching certain standards of precision that would allow the standardization of components. The first use of this principle, as Winchester points out, was in Paris in 1785, and it has become a foundation for modern industrial manufacturing until this day. For Winchester, the possibility to serially produce identical units allowed for a radical new form of efficiency, as generic precise parts would fit into a multiplicity of mechanical contexts, providing great flexibility for production. Moreover, it was the technical achievement of precision in “flatness” that triggered the opportunity for mechanical parts to engage in a geometrical dialogue of co-dependence with other parts that may come to be produced in the future, generating a standard for geometric cooperation.

Economist W. Brian Arthur has built upon the characteristics of mechanical devices to adventure a general definition of technology that relies on a nested relation of autonomous components that combined produce a functional assembly. For Arthur, technology is a combination of components, where each part has a form of encapsulated knowledge.2 This definition of technology has a recursive function, as components in themselves can be a combination of components, allowing for the nesting of technologies within other technologies. This phenomenon can be observed in many devices, as functional objects can be disassembled into a series of autonomous and operational parts that can in themselves be disassembled into further functional units.

The principle of interchangeable parts and nested functionality are core pillars to today’s manufacturing economy. Most manufacturing enterprises have developed business models to supply parts for multiple industries. It is rare that a company would internally manufacture all the parts necessary for the final product, as it will rely on the specialization of parts developed by external suppliers. But we have reached a state where it has become increasingly difficult to improve the performance of a product just by relying on generic components that are readily available.

Companies such as Tesla have disrupted the manufacturing ecosystem by adopting a form of radical “vertical integration.” Vertical integration refers to the process where a company can stop relying on external suppliers by internalizing production. In the example of Tesla, the company has been able to develop 80% of its components in-house, greatly reducing the costs and improving the performance of the product. Elon Musk has used this same principle in SpaceX for the disruption of the space industry, where many suppliers would work as aggregators, each of them with their own gains, thereby increasing the cost of the final rocket. Musk has been celebrated for “cutting down the fat” of the manufacturing process and enabling more efficient assemblies.

Companies like Relativity, also operating in the space industry, have put forward products like the Aeon 1 engine, which is primarily manufactured through 3-D printing technology. The 3-D printing of the engine allows Relativity to cut the lead time in the production of the engine as well as radically reduce the number of parts that are necessary for its fabrication.3

Facing these recent technological developments, Arthur’s definition4 of nested components seems to play against the performance of a particular technology. It is

Relativity Space 3-D printing facility

FIGURE 2.1 Relativity Space 3-D printing facility.

Source: Relativity Space

Aeon 1 Engine by Relativity Space. Engine is manufactured using 3-D printing technology', greatly reducing the number of parts

FIGURE 2.2 Aeon 1 Engine by Relativity Space. Engine is manufactured using 3-D printing technology', greatly reducing the number of parts.

Source: Relativity Space

possible that the most efficient technology would reduce the number of generic parts that could be used and trend toward the optimization of units without subparts, e.g., autonomous wholes that perform a unique narrow function. This is possible considering technologies like 3-D printing that would theoretically be able to manufacture specific units devoid of joinery or subcomponents.

What we can observe is that the increasing aspiration in efficiency and optimization has led to a process of vertical integration, only possible by large accumulations of capital that are able to enclose a production chain. Vertical integration, in turn, has an effect on the tectonics of objects, reducing the need for parts. Such dissolution of tectonics trends toward performative wholes that do not rely on a paradigm of nested or interchangeable parts but rather one of seamless wholes.

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