100 years: Auto assembly lines still moving

Henry Ford launched the first auto assembly line 100 years ago on October 7, 1913, a truly significant manufacturing innovation that has brought about huge economic and social changes.

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It began on October 7, 1913 when engineers constructed a crude system using a rope and winch to pull a Ford Model T past 140 workers in a sprawling new factory in Detroit, Michigan's Highland Park dubbed the  Crystal Palace. AFP

Ford’s moving assembly line turns 100


Henry Ford launched the modern assembly line in a suburb of Detroit a century ago — and helped spark a radical transformation of both manufacturing and society.

By drastically reducing the cost of production with standardised parts and more efficient assembly, Ford Motor Co was able to bring the luxury, convenience and freedom of the automobile to the masses.

Other industries soon adopted the innovation and today, everything from cereal to caskets is made on assembly lines.

‘‘It had a huge, huge impact,’’ said Stephen Burnett, a professor with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Standardisation led to lower costs, higher quality and more reliable products.

Most critically, the assembly line cut the amount of time it took to assemble a Model T from 12.5 hours to just 93 minutes.

‘‘Any time you increase the productivity of labour, tremendously valuable things can happen to the economy,’’ Burnett told AFP.

Higher productivity means more profit, some of which is often returned to workers through higher wages. Workers then have more money to buy products, creating what economists call a virtuous cycle of growth.

The assembly line also changed the way people worked and lived, accelerating the shift from rural areas to cities, and increasing the number of people doing repetitive, low-skilled jobs.

While piece work was a time-honoured tradition and the moving assembly line had already transformed the meatpacking industry in Chicago and Cincinnati, it was Ford who found a way to make it work for complex manufacturing.

The assembly line still exists but the workers have changed a bit. This photo was taken at the opening of the passenger car plant in Rayong province, Thailand on 13 July 2009, a joint venture of the Ford Motor Company and Mazda Motor Corporation. EPA

Ford had already cut costs by standardising the vehicle and its parts — the Model T was famously available in any colour the customer wanted, so long as it was black.

But the cost was still too high and the volume too low for the ‘‘great multitude’’ he hoped to reach.

That changed with the assembly line he launched in Highland Park.

Trains filled with parts rolled down the main bay of the Crystal Palace, where cranes slid through the sunlight pouring in from a glass ceiling and lifted the parts up to balconies. Conveyor belts carried parts to workers as cars were pulled from floor to floor.

‘‘It was a beehive of motion when it was in play,’’ Bob Kreipke, Ford's corporate historian, said as he toured the historic plant Ford now uses for storage. ‘‘When he first started he made about 100 cars a day and it got up to 1,000 — which is almost the same as a modern factory.’’

In 1914, Ford’s 13,000 workers built around 300,000 cars — more than his nearly 300 competitors managed to build with 66,350 employees.

The specialisation of the assembly line meant that Ford no longer had to use craftsmen and could instead hire low-skill workers and teach them a few simple steps.

But the monotonous work led to high turnover, leading Ford to double his minimum wage in order to keep his line humming. The five-dollar day was eventually followed by the five-day work week, which meant Ford workers had both the money to buy his cars and the leisure time to use them.

Despite the higher labour costs, Ford’s efficiencies allowed him to eventually lower the price of the Model T from its introductory rate of $850 to $260.

Technological innovations like automation and just-in-time delivery have brought further efficiencies.

Today, just 500 people work directly on the assembly line at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant, which now builds 605 Focus and C-Max sedans in each of two 10-hour shifts. Some 48,000 people worked at the Crystal Palace at its peak.

You can read the full story here: http://sports.yahoo.com/news/century-ago-fords-assembly-line-changed-society-200512330--nascar.html

Video: An early Ford assembly line in action producing the famous Model T in the 1920s. The 15 millionth Model T left the assembly line in 1927.

Related search: Henry Ford, first assembly line, Highland Park, 1913

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Writer: Terry Fredrickson
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