Multiple-Purpose Production Technology

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According to Kevin Carson of, "The most important concept for decentralized economics is the multiple-purpose production technology described by Murray Bookchin and Kirkpatrick Sale."

According to Marcin Jakubowski of, this is also known as Flexible Specialization. This term comes from a seminal work on this subject by M.J. Piore, et. al., The Second Industrial Divide. This concept may be brought about by a high-tech, yet appropriate technology, Open Source Fab Lab.


From the draft chapter on Decentralized Production Technology in Kevin Carson's forthcoming book on Decentralized Economics.

Citations are from Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, from Kirkpatrick Sale's Human Scale and from F.M. Scherer.


"Adoption of multiple-purpose production machinery for frequent switching from one short production run to another is opposed to the current practice, in large-scale, capital intensive manufacturing, of using expensive, specialized production machinery that can only pay for itself with long production runs for giant market areas.

Murray Bookchin, in Post-Scarcity Anarchism, described the concept:

The new technology has produced not only miniaturized electronic components and smaller production facilities but also highly versatile, multi-purpose machines. For more than a century, the trend in machine design moved increasingly toward technological specialization and single purpose devices, underpinning the intensive division of labor required by the new factory system. Industrial operations were subordinated entirely to the product. In time, this narrow pragmatic approach has "led industry far from the rational line of development in production machinery," observe Eric W. Leaver and John J. Brown. "It has led to increasingly uneconomic specialization.... Specialization of machines in terms of end product requires that the machine be thrown away when the product is no longer needed. Yet the work the production machine does can be reduced to a set of basic functions--forming, holding, cutting, and so on--and these functions, if correctly analyzed, can be packaged and applied to operate on a part as needed."

Ideally, a drilling machine of the kind envisioned by Leaver and Brown would be able to produce a hole small enough to hold a thin wire or large enough to admit a pipe....

The importance of machines with this kind of operational range can hardly be overestimated. They make it possible to produce a large variety of products in a single plant. A small or moderate-sized community using multi-purpose machines could satisfy many of its limited industrial needs without being burdened with underused industrial facilities. There would be less loss in scrapping tools and less need for single-purpose plants. The community's economy would be more compact and versatile, more rounded and self-contained, than anything we find in the communities of industrially advanced countries. The effort that goes into retooling machines for new products would be enormously reduced. Retooling would generally consist of changes in dimensioning rather than in design.


As Kirk Sale observes, the same plant could (say) finish a production run of 30,000 light bulbs, and then switch to wiring or other electrical products--thus "in effect becoming a succession of electrical factories." A machine shop making electric vehicles could switch from tractors to reapers to bicycles.

Some special-purpose machines, of course--Bookchin specifically mentions bottling and canning machines--would continue to be useful even in the context of a decentralized economy. At the same time, some kinds of production (like heavy engine blocks), that can only be done with large, specialized, capital-intensive facilities, would likely face drastic reductions in demand for their products--if the products continued to be used at all:

A major shift from conventional automobiles, buses and trucks to electric vehicles would undoubtedly lead to industrial facilities much smaller in size than existing automobile plants."


F.M. Scherer:

""Ball bearing manufacturing provides a good illustration of several product-specific economies. If only a few bearings are to be custom-made, the ring machining will be done on general-purpose lathes by a skilled operator who hand-positions the stock and tools and makes measurements for each cut. With this method, machining a single ring requires from five minutes to more than an hour, depending on the part's size and complexity and the operator's skill. If a sizable batch is to be produced, a more specialized automatic screw machine will be used instead. Once it is loaded with a steel tube, it automatically feeds the tube, sets the tools and adjusts its speed to make the necessary cuts, and spits out machined parts into a hopper at a rate of from eighty to one hundred forty parts per hour. A substantial saving of machine running and operator attendance time per unit is achieved, but setting up the screw machine to perform these operations takes about eight hours. If only one hundred bearing rings are to be made, setup time greatly exceeds total running time, and it may be cheaper to do the job on an ordinary lathe." [Industrial Market Structure and Economic Performance, p. 97]


  1. Lumenlab has a multimachine for the Personal Manufacturing space
  2. Multimachine
  3. Yahoogroup devoted to the multimachine at
  4. two businesses that will custom machine any part to your digital specs: E-Machine and

Big Blue Saw

  1. Open Source CNC XYZ Table