When we think about Henry Ford and how he became a successful industrial and businessman, we have to think about his innovative and resourceful mind, and how he was capable of developing an effective mass production system based on the moving assembly line technique. In this article, Patrick Dwyer will take a look to what became the most revolutionary production method of the 20th century.
First, it is important to define what an assembly line is: it is a manufacturing tool in which machines, tools, and workers are distributed according to the operations they have to perform. The arrangement of those responsible for completing different tasks varies depending on the production stage. It can be said that the main goal of an assembly line is that every worker is assigned to one particular task that must be repeated until the process can move to the next worker, and so on until the product is finished. In other words, it is a mass production system in which workers don’t need to be skillful in many different tasks.
Introduction of the Assembly Line
The first assembly line was introduced by Ford in 1913 at the first Ford plant in Highland Park, Michigan. With this system, the Ford Motor Company was able to reduce the production time needed to build a Model T from 12 hours to 2.5 hours. Such an innovation had an outstanding impact in the business, allowing the company to produce less “hand-built” cars and move to automation, which translated to more profits and benefits for everyone in the company.
The motivation for Ford to revolutionize the way Model T was being built appeared when he thought that everyone should have access to buy a well-designed vehicle, therefore, vehicles should be affordable for the great multitude. In order to reduce costs related to production and lower the price of his automobiles, Ford figured out that the best way to build them faster and more efficiently was by working on a production line where everyone could take care of a single task. He based his ideas on the principles of Elihu Root, who conceived an assembly method for Samuel Colt, which modified the manufacturing process dividing it in different stages, in order to me it easier.
During the development of the first assembly line, Ford divided the production of the Model T into 84 steps. For each step Ford would train a worker, that way each worker would take care of a single step, becoming an expert in that step. Ford also hired an expert to make each job even more efficient and developed a few machines ideal to help with other tasks – such as stamping parts- automatically, being more efficient than any human being. Perfecting this idea in his mind took years, but finally, Ford was able to enhance his factories’ productivity with the implementation of the assembly line.
Evolution of the Assembly Line
Later on, Ford started visiting other factories, questioning his methods in order to improve them. He was inspired by the continuous flow productions systems used by flour mills, breweries, canneries, industrial bakeries and some meat-packing plants in Chicago. For this reason, Ford decided to install moving lines for the production of smaller parts and finally in December 1913, the installed the moving chassis assembly line in his factories, allowing the vehicle structure to move along the production line by using a strong rope and stopping the chassis at each station, while workers installed the bits and pieces needed until the car was finally completed and ready to leave the factory.
Furthermore, Ford and his team of engineers created machines capable of producing larger quantities of the parts needed for the vehicles and developed the fastest assembling methods of their time. In 1914, still moved by the idea of putting the world on wheels, Ford added a mechanized belt that allowed the line to move faster. He figured out that if the line speed accelerated, he would be able to produce more cars and he was not wrong about this. In 1924, Ford produced the 10 millionth Model T at the Highland Park assembly line, achieving his goal of mass consumption through mass production in only 10 years, selling cars at only $260 each (about $6.000 dollars today).
After years of continuous experiment and refinement of productions practices within the assembly line, Ford succeeded in giving the world and accurate, fast and continuous mass production method. At Highland Park, Model T production reached unheard-of levels, with a finished automobile leaving the line every 10 seconds of every working day. Being able to cut prices, Ford decided to double the minimum daily wage to $5 (about $110 today), produce a superior product and still make a profit. With the moving assembly line, Ford started an industrial and a social revolution that was intended to give better working conditions to his loyal employees.