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Let’s assume this is a society that has some knowledge of advanced technology but is currently in the 16/17th century politically and technologically. How would a society before the industrial revolution go about creating complex mechanisms with interchangeable parts (i.e. firearms, simple engines and agricultural/logging machines).

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  • $\begingroup$ @A Rogue Ant Edited for clarity. Thank you for notifying me. $\endgroup$ Nov 11 '21 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ they can't have advanced technology and at the same time not have it. either they have industrialized or they haven't. industrialization is generally considered to be substantial production of standardized parts, AKA interchangeable parts. So if they large amounts of interchangeable parts they have industrialized. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Nov 11 '21 at 23:06
  • $\begingroup$ The issue is not making interchangeable parts, but the precision needed in those parts. Early firearms were not precision instruments. But a sharpshooter's weapon of today is highly precise. So, your question needs to specify the precision in those complex machines. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Nov 12 '21 at 15:18
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For inspiration you can look at the Republic of Venice, which had developed methods for mass producing warship in its arsenal:

Owned by the state, the Arsenal was responsible for the bulk of the Venetian republic's naval power from the late Middle Ages to the early modern period.

Venice developed methods of mass-producing warships in the Arsenal, including the frame-first system to replace the Roman hull-first practice. This new system was much faster and required less wood. At the peak of its efficiency in the early 16th century, the Arsenal employed some 16,000 people who apparently were able to produce nearly one ship each day, and could fit out, arm, and provision a newly built galley with standardized parts on a production-line basis not seen again until the Industrial Revolution.

The staff of the Arsenal, who were united by their distinct professional identity, also developed new firearms at an early date, beginning with bombards in the 1370s and numerous small arms for use against the Genoese a few years later. The muzzle velocity of handguns was improved beyond that of the crossbow, creating armor-piercing rounds. Arsenal-produced arms were also noteworthy for their multi-purpose utility; the Venetian condottieri leader, Bartolomeo Colleoni, is usually given credit as being the first to mount the Arsenal's new lighter-weight artillery on mobile carriages for field use.

The Venetian Arsenal's ability to mass-produce galleys on an almost assembly-line process was unique for its time and resulted in possibly the single largest industrial complex in Europe prior to the Industrial Revolution.

The Venetian Arsenal was not the mass production facility that it was to be until about 1320 with the creation of the Arsenale Nuovo. The Arsenale Nuovo was simply a larger and more efficient version of the original. Prior to this time the Arsenal had served mainly as a place to maintain privately built ships. With the creation of the Arsenale Nuovo, and the development and introduction of the Great Galley, the Venetian Arsenal would start to take on its industrial form. The invention of the Great Galley itself is significant because they were able to be built frame-first. This process used less timber than the earlier hull-first building system, resulting in much faster build times. This was crucial to the process that would lead to the Arsenal becoming a mass-production center. By the 16th century, the Arsenal had become the most powerful and efficient shipbuilding enterprise in the world. Not only did it supply ships, rigging, and other nautical supplies, it was also a major munitions depot for the Venetian navy and was capable of outfitting and producing fully equipped merchant or naval vessels at the rate of one per day.

In the rest of Europe the production of a similar sized vessel could often take months. This large production capacity was a result of the massive number of people that the Arsenal employed, almost 16,000, and the streamlining of production within the Arsenal itself. Production was divided into 3 main stages: framing, planking and cabins, and final assembly. Each stage employed its own workers who specialized in that particular stage of production as well as using standardized parts to produce an almost assembly-line process. The Arsenal often kept up to 100 galleys in different stages of production and maintenance. That way, once a galley was launched, another could be immediately put into the finishing stages of production. The layout of the Arsenal itself was modified to enable minimal handling of materials during the stages of production. The Arsenal also saw the use of standardized, interchangeable parts.

One revolutionary aspect of the Arsenal was its employment of the moving assembly line. The galleys, through the use of a canal, were moved along during their stages of construction, allowing them to be brought to the materials and workers, instead of the materials and workers going to the galley itself. This assembly approach was repeated in the rest of the world only starting from the early 20th century when Ransom E. Olds began using the modern assembly line, which was later changed into a moving assembly line by Henry Ford.

Your people can do the same.

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    $\begingroup$ As it turns out, if you want to be a sovereign city-state, you innovate or die. $\endgroup$
    – KEY_ABRADE
    Nov 11 '21 at 20:22
  • $\begingroup$ @KEY_ABRADE: In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Most Serene Republic had a decently sized empire, the Stato da Màr. It was so much more than a city-state. (That is why they needed all those war ships in the first place, and why they could afford to fund the Arsenal.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Nov 11 '21 at 21:17
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    $\begingroup$ its worth noting an assembly line is very different than interchangeable parts. assembly lines predates interchangeable parts and industrialization by several centuries. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Nov 11 '21 at 23:03
  • $\begingroup$ This is what I came to talk about. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Nov 12 '21 at 8:56
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Won't happen. The key to interchangeable parts isn't coming up with the idea -- people were trying for it as far back as we've got records of manufacturing techniques.

The key is high-strength steels. Prior to the development of modern tool steels, it was common to need to re-sharpen your tools after every few parts made. With that much wear, no two parts will be the same size because your tools are changing shape as you use them.

The chemistry needed to make tool steels wasn't developed until the mid-1800s. With 16th/17th century technology, your only option is the same "build to fit" techniques everyone else uses.

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  • $\begingroup$ The Venetian Navy was using interchangeable components in timber for running repairs on war galleys in the 14th century. You don't need good steel to make interchangeable parts, even in steel, you need a dedication to the idea of being able to switch out as needed instead of the standard of the day which was artisan production of unique pieces. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Nov 12 '21 at 9:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Ash, were the parts truly interchangeable? Could you disassemble a hundred galleys, scramble the parts, and re-assemble a hundred galleys? Everything I've found says that truly interchangeable parts didn't start showing up until about 1800 for wood, and 1850 for metal. Prior to that, everyone used the technique of "make it about the right size, then file/cut/hammer to fit", which permits assembly-line production, but ends up with a hundred galleys of slightly different sizes and shapes. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Nov 12 '21 at 9:17
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, that was the point, you could take 10 half destroyed galleys and a few spares and build 5 battle ready ships without a highly skilled carpenter having to cut anything to measure because it all fitted together straight off the shelf. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Nov 12 '21 at 9:19
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The concept of interchangeable parts was not entirely unheard of in the 16th and 17th century but it was rarely applied to items of the highest quality. "Munition grade" is the modern term for the mass produced body armour used by 16th and 17th century infantrymen it is poorly finished and generically sized and compared to the armour worn by the aristocracy of the day very rough and ready but a suit could be made by any competent smith a few in days. The components of munition grade armours could be swapped between suits without any special preparation or skill but a master smith would spend a year or more on a suit of high quality Gothic plate that was custom fitted to a single individual and when replacements were needed whole new sections of the armour had to be custom forged.

The items you have listed need not actually have to be made using interchangeable parts; early firearms were made to the size that worked in the smithy and then the ramrod, bullet molds etc... were made to fit the firearm, similarly many early engine cylinders were made with sand casts and hand finished to the staggeringly high accuracy (for it's time) of plus or minus a quarter inch (6.35mm).

Without true industrial outputs, and the advanced material science they rely upon, I would expect a middle ground where machines were made as individual units for a particular customer and purpose but part of producing that machine is also producing a service kit that includes parts made to fit that one machine, and confirmed ahead of time to do so, and patterns for more as needed.

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Printing press style.

In Germany, around 1440, goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, which started the Printing Revolution. Modelled on the design of existing screw presses, a single Renaissance printing press could produce up to 3,600 pages per workday,[3] compared to forty by hand-printing and a few by hand-copying.[4] Gutenberg's newly devised hand mould made possible the precise and rapid creation of metal movable type in large quantities. His two inventions, the hand mould and the printing press, together drastically reduced the cost of printing books and other documents in Europe, particularly for shorter print runs.

Someone in your world realized they can use the same principles behind the printing press to mass produce metal parts for guns and machines. Instead of blocks with letters the blocks are dies for stamped metal parts. Stamped machine parts were actually used by Henry Ford for his cars in the early 1900s but people in your time period had what they needed . There were presses which could be loaded with varying metal letters and there were stamps used to cut and imprint identical metal coins.

Precision dies would be cast in the manner of Gutenberg's hand moulds and these would be used to stamp out multiple identical parts which would then be hand finished.

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    $\begingroup$ Stamping pre-dates Henry Ford by about 2600 years. Stamped machine parts weren't developed until the 1880s because the high forces involved make them even more dependent on high-strength steels than most interchangeable-part manufacturing -- your "precision dies" would only be "precision" for the first part made from each die. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Nov 12 '21 at 3:09

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