The moving assembly line is 100 years old

Next month marks the 100th anniversary of the ‘moving assembly line’, a process which Henry Ford introduced to the auto industry. It was, however, not a process which Ford used when he began making cars in the early 1900s; at that time, “state-of-the-art” manufacturing meant car bodies delivered by horse-drawn carriages, with teams of workers assembling automobiles separately. The teams would rotate from one station to another, doing their part to bring the vehicle together. Parts deliveries were timed, but often ran late causing pile-ups of workers vying for space and delays in production.

Ford had already developed (in 1908) the Model T as a car ‘for the masses’ but in order for the masses – instead of just rich people – to be able to buy his car, he had to find a way to make it at a lower cost. Various solutions were proposed by his experts and the one that he eventually adapted was conveyor line concept used by butchers in Chicago. It was a process which would be one of the most significant innovations for the auto industry and it began at the Ford plant.

The engineers constructed a crude system along an open space at the plant, complete with a winch and a rope stretched across the floor. Then 140 assemblers were stationed along a 45-metre line and they installed parts on the chassis as it was dragged across the floor by the winch (later, an endless chain was used). The man-hours of final assembly dropped from more than 12 hours under the stationary assembly system to around 2.5 hours.

By bringing the work to the men – instead of the men walking to each car – Ford engineers managed to smooth out differences in work pace. They slowed down the faster employees and forced slower ones to quicken their pace. This enabled one car to be completed every three minutes and the rate was so fast that only one type of paint (at that time) could dry fast enough for the process and it was available only in black. This led to Ford offering his customers ‘any colour you want as long as it’s black’.

The concept of assembling cars as they move along a line remains a feature of the auto industry after 100 years

The results of mass production were immediate: in 1912, 82,388 Model Ts were produced and the touring car sold for US$600 but by 1916, Model T production had risen to 585,388, and the price had dropped to US$360. The big drop in price enabled many, many more people to buy the car, fuelling a boom in car sales that would make the car a part of American culture.

The moving assembly line continues to be used today, not only in the auto industry but also many other industries where mass production is required. It has evolved over the past 100 years as new technology has become available. Some of the processes have been automated, using robots to do welding and painting to improve quality.

Robots are used for some processes today (above) but humans are still very much a part of making cars (below)

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[Chips Yap]