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To me as a non-native, maker sounds much less professional than manufacturer or supplier. I.e. an average "piston maker" would probably be much smaller than an average "piston manufacturer" or "piston supplier".

Is this actually true? Can I use "piston maker" in a professional context to refer to a company with 5000 employees?

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A company with 5000 employees shouldn't be too hard to track down - assuming it's not hypothetical, what do they call themselves? But avoid 'pistoneer' - The classical term for a trumpet player is "pistoneer." (wiki) – Edwin Ashworth Jun 26 '13 at 20:14
I associate maker with more custom, individual products (possibly from a smaller team or even a single person), whereas a manufacturer or supplier would be more the scale you're talking about. However, I have no idea how prevalent that usage is. – rsegal Jun 26 '13 at 20:54
up vote 5 down vote accepted

I don't think "sounds more/less professional" is really a relevant factor here.

There are contexts where we always use derivatives of manufacture rather than make (for example, companies may have their manufacturing plants, but never their making plants).

But when it comes to describing companies that produce X's, the main thing that affects whether we call them X makers or X manufacturers is the complexity/scale of the production process.

Have a look at these charts for furniture, car, television, and aircraft. In that sequence, they show an increasing preference for manufacturer, which I think reflects our perception of complexity.

As implied by @rsegal's comment, maker (as a much older word) has stronger associations with "pre-industrialised" production (on a smaller scale, more "custom-built" products, etc.).

But these are just usage tendencies - there's no definitive rule in play. FWIW, there are 2-3 times as many piston manufacturers as there are piston makers, but I very much doubt there would be any tendency at all for the latter to be either smaller, or "less professional" companies.

To the extent that we might choose one word over another, our choice is governed by the product and/or the processes involved, not by attributes of the company that produces them.

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It is not a matter of being more or less professional, it is more a matter of more or less formal. Compare the two sentences:

  • Dell makes computers.
  • Dell manufactures computers.

They mean precisely the same thing. If I spoke the second sentence, my hearer, if he noticed at all, might think I was being slightly too formal or pretentious. If it were printed in a formal report, the first sentence might be thought to be slightly too casual -- but probably not. It's just not that big a deal.

The most common term used to refer to the manufacturer of an automobile on government forms is "Make". As in "What is the make and model of that car?" In news reports on television it is more common to hear "automaker" rather than "auto manufacturer", simply because "manufacturer" is more formal. Not more professional.

I think I agree with @rsegal's comment in that it would be less common for a single craftsman to be referred to as a manufacturer (although ironically "manufacture" comes from a French word meaning "make by hand"). I have a relative who makes custom jewellry; she works alone. I would probably not use the word "manufacturer" to describe her operation, even though she is a professional (meaning she earns her living doing this activity). Pehaps in this sense size matters, but nobody would hesitate to say that a large company makes a given product. But it is not less professional to use "make".

I would not hesitate to use "piston maker" in a professional context.

However, a "supplier" did not necessarily "make" the item. Many "suppliers" merely bought the item from the "manufacturer" for re-sale. A piston maker is automatically a piston supplier, but not the reverse. Typically, "supplier" is reserved for a wholesale operation, not a maker or manufacturer.

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As a Brit., I don't think I've ever heard the term "automaker". I think we would refer to them as "car manufacturer" or "motor manufacturer", or possibly "automobile manufacturer". We don't generally use the word "auto" to mean a car. – TrevorD Jun 26 '13 at 23:13
As Sir Winston Churchill one time remarked, the US and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language. As a Yank, I can tell you I frequently hear the term "automaker". Here is an example from a well-known US newspaper: sfgate.com/cars/article/… – Cyberherbalist Jun 26 '13 at 23:16
I wasn't disputing that. You wrote 'In news reports on television it is more common to hear "automaker"'. In the absence of any indication to the contrary, the OP or another reader might think that applies to the whole English-speaking world - and I merely intended to point out that only applies to some English-speaking regions. – TrevorD Jun 26 '13 at 23:29
And you will perhaps notice that I was not disputing what you wrote. Since you wrote that you've NEVER heard the term "automaker" before, I thought it might be useful to you to see it in actual use, as opposed to leaving you wondering if I was fabricating the whole thing. I lived in the UK for three years a long time ago, but I never chanced upon whatever word was used to designate a manufactuer of automobiles, and I thank you for enlightening me that it isn't "automaker". – Cyberherbalist Jun 26 '13 at 23:39
Apologies if I misunderstood your comment. – TrevorD Jun 26 '13 at 23:41

I agree with the above posters for the most part. 'Manufacture' is used to reflect a certain level of scale and complexity in the process. This, however, equates to a more professional product in the corporate world and I think that is why certain companies prefer the word.

On the flipside---going back to what rsegal noted---'make' is associated with "custom, individual products (possibly from a smaller team or even a single person)" and thus connotes a certain sense of personalized effort (Maker Faire anyone?). Depending on who you ask, 'manufactured' can be seen as a bit of a dirty word and can be likened to something that's mass-produced (bad connotations nowadays). Gibson, for example, makes/manufactures guitars. They have the scale and the degree of complexity when it comes to the process to use the word 'manufacture'. But I don't want a guitar that's 'manufactured'; I want one that's 'made'. On the other hand, if it's a piston or a part that I'm going to---let's say---strap into my car, I'd prefer it be 'manufactured'.

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