Happy Birthday, The Assembly Line

On December 1, 1913, the Ford Motor Company unveiled the assembly line. Up to that time, each car was built one at a time in the same spot on the factory floor. Cars got built, but at a high cost and Henry Ford wanted his Model T, introduced five years earlier, to be transportation for the middle class. At $850, its price was just too expensive for most of the country. What to do?

According to The Writer’s Almanac, the solution was the assembly line. How Ford figured that out is a story in itself. To quote:

Ford soon realized that if he wanted to make more cars and sell them cheaply, he needed more space and a more efficient production system. He bought 60 acres of land in Highland Park, Michigan, where he built his new plant. That solved the space issue, so Henry Ford and his assistant, Charles Sorenson, began looking for ways to make the assembly process more efficient. They realized that bringing the workers to the chassis was slowing things down. They began to think about ways to bring the work to the worker and not the other way around. Ford sought advice from experts in all different manufacturing fields: meatpacking, brewing, baking, and steel making. He built machines to stamp metal parts quickly, and he hired a motion-study expert named Frederick Taylor to help with the human factors.

On April 1913, one of the production engineers decided to try a new way to put together the flywheel magneto — a generator that powered the ignition system. It took about 20 minutes for one person to complete the 29 steps required to assemble this part. But if 29 workers were each employed to complete a single step, the flywheel magneto could be assembled in 13 minutes. With some modifications, that time was trimmed down to only five minutes. Ford adapted this philosophy to the other aspects of automotive production. In October 1913, the automaker implemented a manual conveyer belt system to assemble motors and transmissions. By December, Ford was ready to expand its assembly line model to the chassis. Assemblers were arranged along the 150-foot line and, as the chassis was dragged along the line with a winch, each assembler contributed his part. Production time of a single automobile was cut from twelve and a half hours down to just under six hours. When Ford added a powered conveyor system and put workers on both sides of the chassis, that time was reduced to about two and half hours, and by mid-1914 it only took 93 minutes to completely assemble a Model T. In 1909, Ford had turned out about 11,000 cars a year. In 1913, they produced more that 170,000. And the cost of the Model T dropped drastically: Henry Ford could now sell them for $300, less than half what he had charged just a few years earlier. Finally, he could live up to his promise: “[The Model T] will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one — and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”

Thus we have the assembly line, not only for cars, but for many other complex manufactured items. It became one of the great efficiencies of the Industrial Age.

From The Writer’s Almanac of December 1, 2019 (https://www.spreaker.com/user/prairehomeproductions/the-writers-almanac-sunday-december-1-20).

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