World Economy

Manufacturing Lessons From Ancient Athenians

Manufacturing Lessons From Ancient AtheniansManufacturing Lessons From Ancient Athenians

Athens, the birthplace of democracy and western civilization, and the capital of Greece, has been under the spotlight for all the wrong reasons lately. The Mediterranean nation is regarded as a failed state -- well, at least in the eyes of many Germans who despise Greek profligacy.  So it is hard to imagine that Greece once acted as an ideal model for Germany during the 19th century.

At the time, there was a collective national mania for all things Greek in Germany. The period was memorably described as “the tyranny of Greece over German imagination”, by Simon Goldhill, a professor of classics at Cambridge. German poets, philosophers, educators and musicians were obsessed, Business Spector reported Sunday.

Richard Wagner’s infatuation with Greece was on full display when he said, “I felt myself more truly at home in ancient Athens than in any conditions the modern world has to offer.” We can all appreciate the Hellenic influence in western society from theater to politics, but is there anything Greeks can teach us about how to manage an economy?

The answer is yes, according to Peter Acton, a former vice-president of Boston Consulting Group and a classical scholar who just produced a ground-breaking book on manufacturing in ancient Greece, Poiesis: Manufacturing in Classical Athens.

The age of mass manufacturing, which has been a key feature of industrial economies for the past two to three centuries, is undergoing a fundamental shift at the moment. New technologies such as 3D printing and the internet are returning power and opportunities to the lone craftsman.

  Mass Manufacturing

Acton argues this powerful trend towards making things oneself and choosing freelance careers over full employment creates some of the economic and social dynamics of Athens between 500 and 300 BC. This poses interesting questions about how we manage businesses as well as organizing our society in the dawn of a new age.

Mass manufacturing is all about economies of scale. If you want to grow your business, you must win more volume than your competitors in a crowded marketplace.

Acton tells us that in classical Athens, there was no industrial machinery but slaves who costed roughly the same amount of money to their masters and did most of the work. Therefore, it was almost impossible to gain a competitive advantage in terms of costs or in asset utilization. The only thing left was what we call product differentiation.

Jewellers and weapons manufacturers could and did offer different products. The largest manufacturing business in classical Athens is believed to have been a shield maker that employed 120 slaves, according to Poiesis.  However, most Athenians were self-sufficient in making their daily necessities from pottery to farm products.

Athenians enjoyed what we might call a very flexible working arrangement, and many engaged in casual manufacturing and farming.  Because of their flexible working style and lack of commitment to a permanent employer, civic and artistic life flourished in the city-state. 

  3D Printing Technology

With the spread of 3D printing technology, inexpensive e-commerce platforms and increasing consumer demand for specialization and customizations, we are sailing into the dawn of a new age that would look more like classical Athens than the industrial age of past two or three centuries. For the past few hundred years most people pursued full-time employment in developed industrial societies.

The information revolution is changing all that. The internet is eroding traditional advantages of allocation and cost sharing. The corporate monopoly over information and knowledge is also diminishing, thanks to the spread of online courses and learning materials. People can obtain inexpensive parts from vast online bazaars like Alibaba and sell their finished products there too. Micro controllers and ever more popular 3D printers can turn people’s dreams of making complex products at home into reality.

  Manufacturing Industry

Let’s start with the manufacturing industry. In some segments and products, these lone craftsmen working from home could make a considerable impact on industries with high overheads.

More importantly for society as whole, more and more young people are forfeiting the traditional lifestyle of pursuing full-time careers and embracing more flexible work and life balance. In Britain, 87 percent of its top graduates regard freelancing as a highly lucrative and attractive career option, according to job site Elance. The emergence of websites such as, a global outsourcing platform, is also indicative of the trend.

Could future generations become more like ancient Athenians who took a more active part in democratic, civic as well as artistic lives?  Can we expect young people to make better use of their new-found freedoms to bring about a second renaissance in cultural and artistic achievements? The change in work and lifestyle could also pose interesting challenges for our society security system, housing market -- you name it.