One of the first major consumer goods to be manufactured via assembly line was the automobile. Assembly lines allowed workers to produce high numbers of cars with speed, accuracy and uniformity. What many don’t know, though, is that the assembly line did far more than speed up the production of cars. It improved the efficiency of thousands of consumer products and established the United States as the preeminent source of consumer and industrial goods during the 21st century.
The Model T was not Henry Ford’s first car. He built his first car, the “Quadricyle,” in 1896. In 1903, and several models later, he officially opened the Ford Motor Company. In 1908, after having built 9 models of cars, he started to build the Model T. It would be the first model which would achieve wide scale popularity. Even today, the Model T remains an icon for the Ford Motor Company.
Making it cheaply
Henry Ford had a goal of making automobiles for the common man. He knew that to achieve this, he needed to make them sturdy and cheap. In an effort to make Model T’s cheaply, Ford cut out all extravagances and extraneous options and buyers had to accept one color: black. The cost of the first Model T was $850, which would be approximately $20,000 in today’s dollars. That was not cheap enough for the masses and Ford wanted to make them cheaper.
Highland Park Plant
In 1910, Ford built a new plant in Highland Park, Michigan. Ford consulted with Frederick Taylor, the creator of the theory of scientific management, to examine the most efficient modes of production. Ford had previously observed the assembly line concept in slaughterhouses in the Midwest and wished to incorporate these ideas in the production of automobiles.
Working with Taylor, one of the first innovations that Ford implemented was the installation of gravity slides that facilitated the movement of parts from one work area to the next. Within the next three years, additional assembly techniques were developed and, on December 1, 1913, the first large-scale assembly line was officially up and running.
How it worked
In total, the manufacturing of the car could be broken down into 84 steps. The key to the process, however, was having consistent, interchangeable parts. These parts were created in mass quantities and then brought directly to the workers who were trained to work efficiently at specific assembly stations.
A key part of the process was to bolt the chassis of the car to a conveyor chain where workers applied specific parts as it rolled by. Other workers brought additional parts to the assemblers; this reduced the amount of time workers spent away from their stations to get parts.
Impact of the assembly line on production
The impact of the assembly line at Ford was revolutionary. The production time for a single car dropped from over 12 hours to just 93 minutes. Ford’s 1914 production rate of 308,162 Model Ts eclipsed the number of cars produced by all other automobile manufacturers combined.
The efficiency of the production line allowed Ford to lower the cost of vehicles to consumers. Ten years later, the cost of the Model T dropped to $260, the equivalent of approximately $3500 today.
Impact on workers
The assembly line also altered the lives of Ford’s workers. The work day was cut from nine hours to eight hours so the three-shift workday could be implemented. Although hours were cut, Ford nearly doubled the existing standard wage and began paying his workers a princely sum of $5 a day. Times were good not only at Ford but in the entire United States.
The assembly line today
Today, the assembly line is the primary mode of manufacturing in industry. However, there have been some tweeks along the way. Honda just recently has been experimenting with an “assembly cell” manufacturing approach. According to Roberts Honda of Downington, a local Honda dealer in Downington, PA, the assembly cell method utilizes 4 person teams performing up to five tasks each, per station. This is a technique seems to be working well and the assemblers seem to prefer it to old single task methods.
Today we have automobiles, food, furniture, toys, and many more items are efficiently produced via assembly lines. While the average consumer does not think of this fact often, this 100-year-old innovation by a car manufacturer in Michigan changed the way we live and work forever.