Henry Ford's assembly line: production idea of the century

Henry Ford first rolled a Model T off a moving assembly line 75 years ago this fall. Over the next three-quarters of a century, major advancements improved assembly-line productivity while easing the burden of the worker. Today, while manufacturers tinker with the assembly line, using robot welders, worker teams, even giving some workers the ability to shut down a line, the basic concepts pioneered by Mr. Ford remain a foundation of American manufacturing.

When early pioneers, like Ransom Olds, and even Ford himself, began making making cars in the 1890s and early 1900s, workers assembled each vehicle atop sawhorses, using parts they might have handcrafted, or which were brought to them by stock runners.

The process was slow and tedious. Often, parts had to be reworked so they could fit together. And the final product was priced well beyond the reach of the average American.

Ford began to break away from hand production by borrowing a concept first pioneered by Eli Whitney in 1798, using machines that could manufacture uniform-quality parts in large numbers.

In 1910, the seven-year-old Ford Motor Company moved into a new plant in the Detroit suburb of Highland Park, giving it room to experiment with new ideas, notably a concept called ``work in motion.'' Rather than having an individual worker completely assemble the magnetos used on each Model T, for example, employees would repeat one or two steps over and over, while a moving conveyor belt carried the magnetos to the next worker.

The next step came in October 1913, when ``the great granddaddy of all assembly lines went into operation,'' says David Hounshell, an expert on early industrial development and a professor at the University of Delaware in Newark. Partly assembled vehicles were tied together by hefty rope cables and towed through the factory, where workers pieced them together one part at a time.

``The final act of the revolution,'' Mr. Hounshell adds, ``came on Jan. 5, 1914, when Henry Ford announced he would pay his workers the then-incredible sum of $5 per day for tending his production machines and working on the assembly line.''

By comparison, workers at an early Ford plant on Mack Avenue in Detroit were paid but 15 cents a day. But they were only able to build about 15 cars a day. From the Highland Park plant, cars came out in ever-increasing numbers, until they were rolling out of the plant at the rate of one every 10 seconds.

As a result of these newfound efficiencies, Ford was able to cut the cost of the tin lizzie in half, to $260, suddenly putting it within reach of a mass audience.

What surprised many of his contemporaries was Ford's willingness to discuss his techniques in the press. Soon, many of his competitors figured out how to automate their own plants, a process that was hastened during World War I, with its demands for high volumes of weapons and munitions.

Today, virtually all consumer goods - from cars to perfumes - come off assembly lines.

``I think my grandfather would just be amazed at how far the technology has come,'' says Edsel B. Ford II, great-grandson of Henry, and himself a vice-president and board member of the company.

Hounshell agrees. He points to several developments that have improved quality and productivity, such as robot welders that have replaced the jobs of many assembly workers. New technology has also made life along many lines easier. At Ford's assembly plant in Wayne, Mich., for example, portions of the line are raised several feet in the air so workers don't have to bend or work in pits to perform operations under the chassis.

Management concepts have also had their impact. Taking a cue from the Japanese, many American assembly plants are organizing their employees into teams where workers can perform numerous functions, rather than one set task.

Workers at the Wayne plant have new responsibilities for ensuring quality standards, and if they experience a snag, they can pull a rope that will halt the line until the problem is corrected.

Under Henry Ford, ``that would have gotten a worker fired,'' Hounshell emphasizes. ``The line did not go down for any reason.''

Norman Bodek, president of Productivity Press, a Cambridge, Mass., publishing house, finds great irony in the fact that so many of today's newest assembly-line concepts are being borrowed from the Japanese, such as ``just-in-time'' production, where components are delivered to the plant sometimes within minutes of when they are needed on the line.

After meeting with several pioneers of the concept, Mr. Bodek says, ``I asked them where these ideas came from, and they laughed. They said they had read about them in Henry Ford's book from 1926, `Today and Tomorrow.'''

Bodek's company recently reprinted the book, which explores the concepts Ford developed after the introduction of the assembly line, notably the creation of his giant River Rouge assembly complex. This vast operation took in raw materials at one end and produced virtually every piece needed for each Ford car.

``From the arrival of the iron ore on Monday, that iron ore was in a car going out to a client on Friday,'' Bodek says.

In the search for ways to improve mass production, a few manufacturers have begun experimenting with alternatives to the moving assembly line. One approach can be found at Buick's new Reatta Craft Center in Lansing, Mich.

There is only an abbreviated assembly line, and most of the work is performed at fixed ``craft stations,'' where a team of workers may spend up to 30 minutes performing dozens of separate tasks.

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