27 January 2009

Assembly line

The invention: Amanufacturing technique pioneered in the automobile industry by Henry Ford that lowered production costs and helped bring automobile ownership within the reach of millions of Americans in the early twentieth century. The people behind the invention: Henry Ford (1863-1947), an American carmaker Eli Whitney (1765-1825), an American inventor Elisha King Root (1808-1865), the developer of division of labor Oliver Evans (1755-1819), the inventor of power conveyors Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915), an efficiency engineer A Practical Man Henry Ford built his first “horseless carriage” by hand in his home workshop in 1896. In 1903, the Ford Motor Company was born. Ford’s first product, the Model A, sold for less than one thousand dollars, while other cars at that time were priced at five to ten thousand dollars each. When Ford and his partners tried, in 1905, to sell a more expensive car, sales dropped. Then, in 1907, Ford decided that the Ford Motor Company would build “a motor car for the great multitude.” It would be called the Model T. The Model T came out in 1908 and was everything that Henry Ford said it would be. Ford’s Model T was a low-priced (about $850), practical car that came in one color only: black. In the twenty years during which the Model T was built, the basic design never changed. Yet the price of the Model T, or “Tin Lizzie,” as it was affectionately called, dropped over the years to less than half that of the original Model T. As the price dropped, sales increased, and the Ford Motor Company quickly became the world’s largest automobile manufacturer. The last of more than 15 million Model T’s was made in 1927. Although it looked and drove almost exactly like the first Model T, these two automobiles were built in an entirely different way. The first was custom-built, while the last came off an assembly line. At first, Ford had built his cars in the same way everyone else did: one at a time. Skilled mechanics would work on a car from start to finish, while helpers and runners brought parts to these highly paid craftsmen as they were needed. After finishing one car, the mechanics and their helpers would begin the next. The Quest for Efficiency Custom-built products are good when there is little demand and buyers are willing to pay the high labor costs. This was not the case with the automobile. Ford realized that in order to make a large number of quality cars at a low price, he had to find a more efficient way to build cars. To do this, he looked to the past and the work of others. He found four ideas: interchangeable parts, continuous flow, division of labor, and elimination of wasted motion. Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin, was the first person to use interchangeable parts successfully in mass production. In 1798, the United States government asked Whitney to make several thousand muskets in two years. Instead of finding and hiring gunsmiths to make the muskets by hand, Whitney used most of his time and money to design and build special machines that could make large numbers of identical parts—one machine for each part that was needed to build a musket. These tools, and others Whitney made for holding, measuring, and positioning the parts, made it easy for semiskilled, and even unskilled, workers to build a large number of muskets. Production can be made more efficient by carefully arranging the different stages of production to create a “continuous flow.” Ford borrowed this idea from at least two places: the meat-packing houses of Chicago and an automatic grain mill run by Oliver Evans. Ford’s idea for a moving assembly line came from Chicago’s great meat-packing houses in the late 1860’s. Here, the bodies of animals were moved along an overhead rail past a number of workers, each ofwhommade a certain cut, or handled one part of the packing job. This meant that many animals could be butchered and packaged in a single day. Ford looked to Oliver Evans for an automatic conveyor system. In 1783, Evans had designed and operated an automatic grain mill that could be run by only two workers. As one worker poured grain into a funnel-shaped container, called a “hopper,” at one end of the mill, a second worker filled sacks with flour at the other end. Everything in between was done automatically, as Evans’s conveyors passed the grain through the different steps of the milling process without any help. The idea of “division of labor” is simple: When one complicated job is divided into several easier jobs, some things can be made faster, with fewer mistakes, by workers who need fewer skills than ever before. Elisha King Root had used this principle to make the famous Colt “Six-Shooter.” In 1849, Root went to work for Samuel Colt at his Connecticut factory and proved to be a manufacturing genius. By dividing the work into very simple steps, with each step performed by one worker, Root was able to make many more guns in much less time. Before Ford applied Root’s idea to the making of engines, it took one worker one day to make one engine. By breaking down the complicated job of making an automobile engine into eighty-four simpler jobs, Ford was able to make the process much more efficient. By assigning one person to each job, Ford’s company was able to make 352 engines per day—an increase of more than 400 percent. Frederick Winslow Taylor has been called the “original efficiency expert.” His idea was that inefficiency was caused by wasted time and wasted motion. So Taylor studied ways to eliminate wasted motion. He proved that, in the long run, doing a job too quickly was as bad as doing it too slowly. “Correct speed is the speed at which men can work hour after hour, day after day, year in and year out, and remain continuously in good health,” he said. Taylor also studied ways to streamline workers’ movements. In this way, he was able to keep wasted motion to a minimum. Impact The changeover from custom production to mass production was an evolution rather than a revolution. Henry Ford applied the four basic ideas of mass production slowly and with care, testing each new idea before it was used. In 1913, the first moving assembly line for automobiles was being used to make Model T’s. Ford was able to make his Tin Lizzies faster than ever, and his competitors soon followed his lead. He had succeeded in making it possible for millions of people to buy automobiles. Ford’s work gave a new push to the Industrial Revolution. It showed Americans that mass production could be used to improve quality, cut the cost of making an automobile, and improve profits. In fact, the Model T was so profitable that in 1914 Ford was able to double the minimum daily wage of his workers, so that they too could afford to buy Tin Lizzies. Although Americans account for only about 6 percent of the world’s population, they now own about 50 percent of its wealth. There are more than twice as many radios in the United States as there are people. The roads are crowded with more than 180 million automobiles. Homes are filled with the sounds and sights emitting from more than 150 million television sets. Never have the people of one nation owned so much. Where did all the products—radios, cars, television sets—come from? The answer is industry, which still depends on the methods developed by Henry Ford.


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