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I always had the impression that a plant was bigger than a factory and that a plant might contain several factories, but we wouldn't say that a factory contains several plants.

According to oxforddictionaries.com,

  • plant: a place where an industrial or manufacturing process takes place
    the company has 30 plants in Mexico
  • factory: a building or group of buildings where goods are manufactured or assembled chiefly by machine

Not very specific.
Disregarding adjectives like "small plant" and "large factory," just looking at the words plant and factory, is one bigger than the other to the average native English speaker?

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You mean, like ship and boat...? After reading Wikipedia, it seems like plant might be bigger - but I had to look that up to form an opinion. –  J.R. Sep 24 '12 at 10:54
    
Where both factory and plant are used, it seems plant has connotations of a functional unit, while factory refers to the larger physical structure -- a factory may have several plants each for a specific purpose, never the other way around. We say the factory has an acetic acid plant among others. Construction terminology also follows a similar differentiation. –  Kris Sep 24 '12 at 13:16
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2 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Merriam-Webster says this:

"plant (noun) 2 a : the land, buildings, machinery, apparatus, and fixtures employed in carrying on a trade or an industrial business; b : a factory or workshop for the manufacture of a particular product; also : power plant; c : the total facilities available for production or service; d : the buildings and other physical equipment of an institution"

"factory (noun) 2 a : a building or set of buildings with facilities for manufacturing"

There's no difference between them in my dialect. One word's shorter than the other's all that I can see. It's probably a matter of regional dialect and local (what they say at work, plant or factory) parlance.

However, one wouldn't call a power plant a power factory.

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I find it interesting that "plant" includes the property outside and the machinery inside, while "factory" seems to be referring more to the buildings themselves. That said, I agree with you: the difference in negligible - particularly once you're on the plant (factory) floor. –  J.R. Sep 24 '12 at 11:32
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@J.R.: If one looks at the origin of the word, a factory is where factors lived and worked. It was usually a well-armed fort and included all the land as well as the buildings and machinery, especially when those factors were the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Spanish, and the British in Africa, Oceania, and Asia during the heyday of the spice trade. The online Etymological Dictionary says: "plant: Sense of building 'planted' or begun for an industrial process first attested 1789" & "factory: Sense of 'building for making goods' first attested 1610s". Both originally meant a building. –  user21497 Sep 24 '12 at 12:08
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Since

  • Factory is the older term, and deals with the assembly of things, and
  • Plant is a word that arose (in its modern usage) for chemical refineries and the like

you could consider a Plant more complex compared than a factory, if for no other reason than the added complexity of the refinery / reaction process(es) involved.

In fact, consider that smelting facilities are generally called a plant despite also involving factory-line types of post-process handling.

Also, I'd ponder that plant arose from plantation - which is more complex (in operations) than a factory.

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