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Ford’s Assembly Line, 75 Today, Altered the World as Well as Autos

Times Staff Writer

Seventy-five years ago today, in Henry Ford’s “Crystal Palace,” his Model T factory in Highland Park, Mich., the moving assembly line was born.

On Oct. 7, 1913, the industrial world was changed forever.

It was, in many ways, the dawn of a second industrial revolution, the start of a dramatic shift from an era of small-scale manufacturing to one dominated by the mass production of inexpensive consumer goods for America’s emerging middle class.

The Highland Park assembly line “transformed the entire nature of the 20th Century, perhaps more than any other development except the atomic bomb,” argues University of Delaware historian David Hounshell, the author of a major study of Ford’s early operations.

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Indeed, coupled with Ford’s revolutionary decision to pay workers $5 a day, which followed just months later, the introduction of the moving line in many ways helped create the modern middle class.

Executives at Ford Motor Co. plan to commemorate the anniversary in ceremonies today at its Wayne Assembly Plant in suburban Detroit, where it produces the Ford Escort.

With the assembly line, Henry Ford became the first industrialist to discover a way to make quantum leaps in productivity, enabling him to pay extremely high wages to unskilled workers, while at the same time extending cheap mobility to millions who previously could not afford to buy cars.

There has been no innovation before or since in the history of industry that has had a comparable impact on the way modern man organizes work, most business historians agree.

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For the first time, Ford’s line took manufacturing jobs out of the hands of an elite class of artisans and turned them over to unskilled laborers who were as interchangeable as the parts they put together.

As a result, the line increased the gulf separating labor and management, while also leaving a legacy of worker alienation that modern industry continues to try to cope with today.

Despite that legacy, sometimes called the “blue-collar blues,” the line remains a constant in industry, an unending process that Japanese and American manufacturers alike swear by to this day.

10,000 Workers

“I think you’ll always have the main conveyor system,” says Owen Zidar, manager of stamping and assembly engineering for Ford. “There will always be people on the line.”

But on that October day in Highland Park, the Ford mechanics and engineers who jimmied together the first rope-pulled assembly line probably had no inkling that their work represented such an earth-shattering discovery.

“These guys were just experimenting with different production methods,” says Hounshell. “They were trying lots of different things that year.”

Ford’s Highland Park plant, which had opened three years earlier, was already huge, employing 10,000 workers by the time the assembly line was introduced.

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But despite the factory’s immense size, Model T assembly was done in piecemeal operations until 1913. Ford was still using the production processes common throughout the fledgling auto industry--each car chassis was propped up on a sawhorse, and teams of workers would move from one car to the next, installing parts as they went.

But Model T sales were soaring; it was truly the first car for the common man. To meet the demand, Ford’s engineers and plant executives, given enormous creative license in the early days by Henry Ford himself, were eager to find ways to increase production.

A key to speeding production, the Ford engineers found, was to make parts interchangeable, which eliminated the need for craftsman skilled in the art of putting together components of highly complex machines. If every part was exactly alike, machined to precise specifications before the assembly process, unskilled workers could fit them together easily--and at high speed.

“The idea of interchangeable parts had been floating around the auto industry in Detroit -- Ransom Olds had tried it (at Oldsmobile),” observes Daniel Raff, an economic historian at the Harvard Business School. “But no one ever made a big deal out of it before Ford. All the other companies were just building a couple thousand cars a year, and so it didn’t make much difference to them. He was the only one who had the idea of building lots and lots of cheap cars, and interchangeable parts was a crucial idea for that.”

Meanwhile, industrialists throughout the Midwest were familiar with the “disassembly lines” of the meatpacking industry, where the carcass moved through the plant while the workers remained at their stations. With their newly interchangeable parts, the engineers at Ford realized, they could follow the meatpacking model.

Early in 1913, Ford began to set up small assembly lines to make flywheel magnetos and other components.

Quickly, it became clear to Ford officials that the assembly line was providing an enormously effective way for management to determine the speed of the production process.

By August, Ford’s engine department switched to an assembly line, and his engineers began lobbying for final assembly to go onto a moving line.

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Production Soared

Historians now dismiss the idea that Henry Ford himself invented the assembly line; in fact, there was apparently a heated debate within his growing company’s bureaucracy over whether a changeover to the line would disrupt production.

“There really is no direct connection between Henry Ford himself and the assembly line,” says Hounshell. “But he deserves credit for being extremely successful at hiring bright young mechanics and engineers who were willing to experiment. And he allowed them to experiment.”

Almost as soon as the assembly line started, Ford could see the dramatic results. Instead of workers coming to the cars, the cars were coming to the workers, and it was Ford, not the workers, deciding how fast that was done.

Model T production immediately soared, from 82,000 in 1912 to 189,000 in 1913, and to 231,000 in 1914. By the start of World War I, Ford was building more cars than the rest of the auto industry combined.

Ford’s success was so overwhelming that the assembly line quickly became universally accepted throughout the world.

Within a few years of Ford’s first crude efforts, the line had become the standard method for producing virtually all major consumer goods; by 1918, even vacuum sweepers were being built on an assembly line in Germany. And the new methods of industrial production had gained a nickname -- “Fordism.”


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