Interchangeable parts are parts (components) that are, for practical purposes, identical. They are made to specifications that ensure that they are so nearly identical that they will fit into any assembly of the same type. One such part can freely replace another, without any custom fitting, such as filing. This interchangeability allows easy assembly of new devices, and easier repair of existing devices, while minimizing both the time and skill required of the person doing the assembly or repair.
The concept of interchangeability was crucial to the introduction of the assembly line at the beginning of the 20th century, and has become an important element of some modern manufacturing but is missing from other important industries.
Interchangeability of parts was achieved by combining a number of innovations and improvements in machining operations and the invention of several machine tools, such as the slide rest lathe, screw-cutting lathe, turret lathe, milling machine and metal planer. Additional innovations included jigs for guiding the machine tools, fixtures for holding the workpiece in the proper position, and blocks and gauges to check the accuracy of the finished parts.Electrification allowed individual machine tools to be powered by electric motors, eliminating line shaft drives from steam engines or water power and allowing higher speeds, making modern large scale manufacturing possible. Modern machine tools often have numerical control (NC) which evolved into CNC (computerized numeric control) when microprocessors became available.
Methods for industrial production of interchangeable parts in the United States were first developed in the nineteenth century. The term American system of manufacturing was sometimes applied to them at the time, in distinction from earlier methods. Within a few decades such methods were in use in various countries, so American system is now a term of historical reference rather than current industrial nomenclature.
Evidence of the use of interchangeable parts can be traced back over two thousand years to Carthage in the First Punic War. Carthaginian ships had standardized, interchangeable parts that even came with assembly instructions akin to "tab a into slot b" marked on them.
In East Asia during the Warring States period and later the Qin Dynasty, bronze crossbow triggers and locking mechanisms were mass-produced and made to be interchangeable.