INDUSTRY-ORIENTED ENGINEERING EXCHANGE
The BDV and B-29 Committees were product-specific cooperative organizations. Creating broader industry-wide cooperation fell to a number of groups, the most prominent of which was the Aircraft War Production Council (AWPC). Begun in April of 1942 by eight of the largest Southern California aircraft manufacturers, the AWPC was an unusual departure from normal peacetime competitive operations. It involved the transfer of knowledge, materials, labor, and facilities among former rivals.33 One of the intriguing characteristics of the AWPC was the wide-ranging mandate to share any information that could aid the prosecution of the war. The Board of Directors, composed primarily of the presidents of the West Coast Companies, strongly supported exchange and set a clear policy for Council activities:
It is the instruction of the Board of Directors that members of the Advisory Committees shall be free to interchange all information which will help the war production of the company receiving the information, without regard to protection of manufacturing processes which in normal peace times might be regarded as a secret.34
The sentiment was genuine and followed resolutely by the committees. Like the BDV and B-29 Committees, many of the market-based obstacles normally hindering technology transfer among competitors in peacetime were thus removed. Similarly, the AWPC did not simply lower corporate barriers; it established direct channels for exchange. AWPC Committee workers had strong incentives to cooperate with each other since their immediate superiors in the Council were also likely to be their superiors at their respective companies (see figure 7).35
While never completely isolated from each other before the war, the manufacturers generated much of their engineering information, especially production information, in-house. The principal exception to this was wind tunnel data, the province of affluent institutes and organizations. The challenge for the Council was to establish means not only for sharing information, but generating it cooperatively. Encouraging disparate groups to exploit outside information led to special efforts to tailor information retrieval to the likes of engineers. Mutual engineering research, like cooperative aircraft production schemes, would eventually take on the methodology of standardization in order to make research results portable. The regularity of exchange, while not a direct indicator of
Figure 7. Founders of the AWPC. From left to right: Harry Woodhead (Consolidated), Donald Douglas (Douglas), La Motte Cohu (Northrop), J. H. Kindelberger (North American), Richard Miller (Vultee), Courtland Gross (Vega), and Robert Gross (Lockheed). Source: Frank Taylor and Lawton Wright, Democracy’s Air Arsenal New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1947, 45.
successful technology transfer, indicates that at a minimum there was significant demand for outside information.
As early as 1936, the southern California manufacturers had begun their own inhouse technical libraries. With the outbreak of war, it was to the Pacific Aeronautical Library (PAL), begun in 1941, that they turned as the locus for technical exchange. Operated by the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences, the PAL quickly became a natural partner to the AWPC and was ultimately subsumed into the Council itself in 1943. Collection, indexing, and exchange were the library’s three functions, and it became the principal means for publicizing and transferring written information between companies.36
While the PAL did serve as a simple repository, its real strength lay in its ability to make a wide range of materials available to professionals. In October, 1942, the librarians began an indexing project oriented towards engineers and comprising materials well beyond the PAL’s own collection. Finding traditional subject headings inappropriate for aircraft design and production, the librarians created their own. The standard indexes, including the Library of Congress subject headings, the Engineering Index, and the Industrial Arts Index, approached aviation in far too general terms. In consultation with workers from local companies, the librarians exploited the engineer’s lexicon. For example, they classified materials by vendors or trade names rather than under broadly scientific material categories. To satisfy the needs of both the design and production aspects of aircraft manufacture, topics were given multiple entries (for example, one applying to a particular material, another applying to the processes surrounding that material). Furthermore, the PAL attempted to be all inclusive, a single reference point for all matters. The index comprised articles from all the relevant engineering and trade journals, including NACA and SAE publications.37 Eventually the PAL index came to include the collections of member companies, creating a meta-collection available to everyone. Engineers could thus easily order information and have it quickly copied and delivered. Interchange among companies, institutes such as Caltech, and the PAL grew large enough to require a messenger service that traversed a 120-mile route between libraries and companies twice a week.38 The PAL’s indexes were reprinted many times over, being sent to manufacturers across the US and the NACA.39
As table 1 indicates, the PAL served customers throughout the local aviation community. Reinforcing the idea that the PAL acted as an information service, as opposed to a simple repository, is the high percentage of research questions asked relative to other services; they account for over 36% of the total. It is also interesting to note that Vega exploited the service the most, even though it was a smaller company compared to Douglas, Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, and North American Aviation. One probable explanation is that the larger companies were much more self-sufficient, and that the PAL was relatively more important to smaller firms, including subcontractors like Adel Precision Products Corporation and AiResearch. As this was a formative period in aircraft industry subcontracting, technology transfer and the establishment of basic aeronautical expertise would have been critical to these smaller companies.
The operation of a central library fulfilled only a small portion of the Council’s technology transfer goals. A principal objective – eliminating duplicated research among manufacturers – remained for the Council’s committees. The airframe firms continually carried out research in many areas, not just product design, but tests on materials and production processes too. These activities are not well known since the reports were normally proprietary, and tended to be destroyed as newer information superceded the old. They were directed at very specific design and production issues, giving information on how to do something, as opposed to why something occurs. In this, they were quintessential^ engineering, not scientific reports. Table 2 gives the results of the October 1943 survey in which the Engineering Committee found a total of 321 different research projects at all member companies (for an average of 49 projects per company, per month).40 Aside from the sheer volume of research, it should be observed that little of it was in the area traditionally associated with aircraft research – aerodynamics, which had the least number of projects of any other category. Not only was theoretical research a small fraction of the overall research scheme, but studies on manufacturing problems were as numerous as those on design-oriented research. Such research differed from traditional corporate research and development in that it was not restricted to a laboratory setting. What we might call production-design research took place at many levels throughout the factory and
Table 1. Pacific Aeronautical Library Statistics (10/42 to 9/43)
Source: Meeting Report, Librarians Specialists Panel, 4 November 1943, Committee Reports on Production Division (October 15 – November 15, 1943), box 24, NAWPC.
involved a wide variety of personnel, including engineers, technicians, tooling designers, and machinists. The research represented a systematic effort to quickly produce locally valuable design data, including design data for production.
The extent to which companies shared this information with each other can be gleaned from AWPC Engineering Committee statistics. Unfortunately only a partial record of these statistics remain, as indicated by table 3. Many different things
Table 2. Active Research Projects of AWPC Member Companies, October 1943
Source: Meeting Report, Engineering Committee, 9 Oct. 1943, Committee Reports on Production Division (September 15 – October 15, 1943), box 24, NAWPC.
Table 3. AWPC Engineering Committee Information Exchange Statistics
Sources: Meeting Report, Advisory Committee on Engineering, 2 Jan. 1943, Committee Reports on Production Division (December 1942), box 22, NAWPC; Meeting Report, Advisory Committee on Engineering, Committee Reports on Production Division (January 1943), box 22, NAWPC; Meeting Report, Advisory Committee on Engineering, 3 April 1943, Committee Reports on Production Division (March 15 – April 15, 1943), box 22, NAWPC; Meeting Report, 7 August 1943, Committee Reports July – Aug. 1943, box 23, NAWPC; Meeting Report, 4 Sept. 1943, Committee Reports Aug. – Sept. 1943, box 23, NAWPC; Meeting Report, 8 January, 1944, Reports on Committee Activities August 1944, box 23, NAWPC; Meeting Report, 6 May 1944, Reports on Committee Activities June 1944, box 25, NAWPC; Meeting Report, 8 July 1944, Reports on Committee Activities, box 25, NAWPC; Meeting Report, 9 Dec. 1944, Reports on Committee Activities January 1945, box 25, NAWPC; Warplane Production 2, no. 3-4 (March – April 1944).
a The AWPC EC number presumably is for information sent to the AWPC EC, since the Engineering Committee would not have been interested in how other organizations were benefiting the AWPC.
b The cumulative figures are those given by the AWPC. This includes some material that is not reflected in the given monthly numbers.
qualified as an incident of engineering exchange, though all of the data listed falls in the information category, as opposed to tooling or material exchanges. For the given sample, exchange between member companies accounts for 60 percent, while exchange with the East Coast accounts for 12 percent, and non-members for 5 percent. Because the Council was specifically interested in the amount of time saved through cooperation, Table 3 does not include duplicated reports. Additional statistics show that many of these engineering reports were reprinted many times over. For example, in August 1943, the AWPC mailed a total of 22,582 articles, 10,193 engineering reports, and 319 miscellaneous publications. Respective totals from the beginning of AWPC operations in April 1942 to the first of September, 1943, 17 months, are: 179, 241; 91,284; and 319.41
Underscoring the inability of written information to communicate all engineering knowledge was the role played by interplant visits. For the months in which they were included in Council statistics, they count for about ten to twenty percent of total exchange. Sometimes plant visits were incorporated into a panel’s meetings. For example the May meeting of the Subcommittee on Tooling Coordination took a tour of the Boeing plants in Renton, Washington. Minutes from the meeting note the following:
The Committee met at 10:00 a. m. and a tour was conducted through both Plant #1 and Plant #2 where the manufacture of roll forming, curving and stretching of sheet metal was in process. The committee was very interested in our methods of manufacture, and special interest was shown in the movable stretching tables built by Consolidated. The tour came to an end at 12:30 p. m. Discussion was then opened on the subject, and Mr. Englehardt, General Foreman of the Metal Bench Department, answered all questions asked pertaining to rolling, curving and stretching of sheet metal parts.42
This kind of interaction represents the height of tacit knowledge transfer. These processes existed in physical form on the plant floor and in the activities of the laborers. Such practices rarely warranted internal reports or studies, and in some cases, might only be known to shop workers. For example, it came to the attention of the Testing and Research Panel that “it is apparently common practice for draw press operators to heat aluminum alloy in warm water just before drawing.”43 Meetings between tooling engineers would have been insufficient to communicate all such facets of a production system. Instead, interplant visits were a crucial method of communicating differences in engineering practice and shop culture. Even in cases where there was published information, plant tours could be highly educational. In one instance, members of the Project Group of the Methods Improvement Panel touring the Northrop factory were able to each try their hand at Northrop’s Heliarc welding process44
On the occasions where the Council found common problems among the manufacturers, it often initiated cooperative research projects, or at least brought existing research groups together. Here again, the critical exchange of engineering information was impeded by differing traditions. In many cases, Council committees and subcommittees resorted to methods of standardization in order to overcome these divides. As such, standardization can be considered a means of achieving technology transfer. For the AWPC, standardization was unlike the SAE’s efforts in the automobile industry, where common parts, materials, and measures permitted external economies. Rather, the standardization of things like test procedures permitted the exchange and comparison of engineering knowledge. It permitted one company’s test results to be compared against another’s. This produced an external economy of a different kind, one based on abstract technical data rather than physical parts or materials. While the AWPC had removed proprietary restrictions on the exchange of data in 1942, it would require standardized company practices before data were truly interchangeable. Standardization efforts did not end there though. AWPC committees standardized language, defects, procedures, and training.
Standardization was not only a means of achieving internal and external efficiencies, it was a familiar method of establishing order and creating novel systems of engineering knowledge. It implied the exchange of best-practice technology as well as the consensual definition of what was appropriate behavior for a worker, an engineer, or a manufacturing firm. The pervasive and continued recourse to standards activities by engineers was due in large part to the fact that this was an extremely familiar form of engineering exchange within the context of industrial coordination. The AWPC committees themselves had been established in a manner very similar to the SAE’s committees, both characterized by technical expertise, small groups with a tight focus, company representation, and industrial coordination.45
In the early days of mobilization, it was commonly assumed that America’s industrial strength could be redirected towards the mass production of armaments. In an atmosphere of hopeful naivete, planners believed in a kind of design – production modularity, where one company’s high-performance designs could be transferred to another company’s high-performance production system. Ultimately the country did convert to wartime production and achieve remarkable success in the mass production of aircraft. Yet it required a painful education, one that exposed the extent to which design and production were embedded within a company’s engineering culture and traditions of practice. One might be able to explain away Ford’s well known difficulties in producing the B-24 as simply a case of interindustry technology transfer, but just as many problems appeared among longtime members of the aircraft industry.
In ways that are often invisible to engineers and managers within a company, the mixing and matching of design and production systems and widespread technology transfer illuminates the nature of engineering information. Engineering knowledge is not solely the province of the research engineer or the product designer. Nor is it embodied succinctly and completely in numerical data or technical drawings. On the way to the final product, information is both lost and accrued. In an ironic turn to the historiography of technology as knowledge, we find engineering knowledge
embodied in physical artifacts, not simply in the final product as we would expect, but in design and production. In tools, machinery, processes, and plant layout, information is perpetuated within a company, reinforcing workplace traditions while simultaneously reflecting workers’ traditions of practice.
The process of production, hidden by scholarly emphasis on product design and performance, complicates our understanding of engineering knowledge. For the manufacturing firm, the ability to design and produce is not the function of a single engineer, but of an organization. We can neither presuppose that design exists outside of production, nor model the factory as a linear process from idea to finished product. Underlying this argument are the different factory actors who execute some manner of design: aeronautical engineer, structural engineer, production engineer, tooling engineer, machinist, foreman, worker, and occasionally, manager. The engineering department may arrive at what it believes to be a complete design, but what rolls out the factory doors will in all likelihood be a different product.
The historical circumstance of wartime cooperation is itself remarkable. The quantity of exchange, where it is documented, is staggering. Both the product – oriented and industry-wide organizations found ways to transfer information, however ungainly they might seem to those who believe in the power of the technical drawing. Drawings were complemented by thousands of master gages, jigs, fixtures, tools, and the occasional example aircraft. Where documents and physical devices could not guarantee precision, these organizations resorted to the exchange of personnel. Interchangeable airplane assemblies were as much a result of practice as they were of accurate measurement. So too, the AWPC promulgated standardized procedures in order to make engineering information interchangeable. Standardization served to expunge critical differences in culture and practice.
What this history tells us is that for many years prior to World War II, firms developed their own ways of doing things. They were content with their handling of engineering information so long as it produced the desired artifact. In manufacturing, companies are held to the success of their product, not the outside reproducibility of their engineering information, as in a scientific laboratory. World War II subjected the production process to new scrutiny as manufacturers attempted to understand why engineering information was not truly portable. In the end they found that production systems were as varied and idiosyncratic as the aircraft they produced.