Introduction to Industrial Engineering

By Jane M. Fraser

Chapter 12

The past and the future

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12.6 The assembly line

Henry Ford (1863-1947) was not the first to make a horseless carriage; he was not even the first to drive a gasoline powered vehicle on Detroit streets (pages 40 and 46, Watts). He wasn’t the first to manufacture automobiles and the Ford Motor Company wasn’t his first attempt to form a company to do so (his other attempts were unsuccessful). Between 1900 and 1908, 501 companies were formed in the US to manufacture automobiles (page 58, Watts).

What did Ford accomplish? First, he manufactured a car for the masses. Second, he, with others, invented the modern assembly line. And third, he paid his workers enough that they could buy the cars they made. These three contributions are intertwined and each succeeded only because of the other.

Ford’s vision of “an inexpensive, simple lightweight car for a mass audience of buyers” won out over others at Ford Motor Company who wanted to make an expensive car for rich buyers (page 97, Watts). Through his production of such automobiles, through his role as a symbol of consumption, and through the car as the symbol of consumer prosperity, Ford helped create the idea of consumption as self-fullfillment and the idea of mass culture (page xii, Watts).

In 1903, the Ford Motor Company was incorporated and began producing Model As, with each car assembled as it rested in one spot; sales quickly followed. Working with Walter Flanders, Charles Sorenson, William C. Klann, and others, Ford created a new production system centered on the assembly line, where the car moved, each worker did specialized tasks at a fixed location, and parts were delivered as needed (pages 103-104, 142, Watts; Pages 79-81, Halberstam). The time to assemble a chassis dropped from over twelve hours to about one and a half hours (Watts, page 144).

The drive for efficiency seemed to be second nature to Ford (Watts, pages 14-15).

“In his memoirs, My Life and Work, Ford explained away his aversion to labor [on his parents’ farm]: ‘My earlier recollection is that, considering the results, there was too much work on the place.’ He added, ‘Even when very young I suspected that much might be done in a better way.’” (Brinkley, page 9).

Ford continually sought improvement in the design of his automobile and in the design of the production system. Ford focused on the consumer, saying he started with consumer, then the design, then the manufacture (page 121, Watts). He used vanadium steel to reduce the weight of the vehicle (page 113, Watts). The plants were designed with “tightly placed machines discouraging the accumulation of work in aisles” so that “a continuous flow of production from site to site became the norm (Watts page 138). Halberstam argues that Ford, not Toyota, deserves credit for the just-in-time concept (page 88, Halberstam). Special purpose machines were designed and built to speed up each step. First operated in 1920, the River Rouge plant was located to use water transportation and laid out to facilitate efficient operations. Movement of product between buildings was accomplished by ninety miles of railroad track and movement within buildings used a network of conveyors and cranes (Brinkley, page 285). Waste was turned into useful products, although these operations were not always money makers. The slag left over from burning coal dust in the blast furnaces in the steel plant was used in a cement factory; ammunion sulfate fertilizer, another by-product, was also sold (Brinkley, page 286). By 1928, as Ford had envisioned, steel came in one end and cars came out the other -- only four days later.

Ford was not bookish and while he “certainly never read Taylor, and there is little to suggest that his managers did, either -- much evidence indicates that the spirit of scientific management was in the air” at Ford. “The broad impulse to rationalize the labor system, to break down and reorganize its component parts, to eliminate waste motion through time-and-motion studies, and to select workers for tasks scientifically, animated Ford managers in the years when the assembly line was developed.” (Watts page 153). Brinkley argued that Taylor’s influence on manufacturing practice has been exaggerated, with Ford providing the large-scale demonstration of how to achieve efficiency (Brinkley, page140). Brinkley also points out that other Detroit automobile plants used advanced techniques, but Ford’s contribution was the continual improvement of the assembly line (Brinkley, page 141). “New and better machinery was in constant development at Ford Motor Company. It was said, in fact, that throughout the long production run of the Model T, at least one new machine or tool was introduced at the factory every single day. Not much of importance may have changed on the T to make it new, improved, or different during its nineteen-year model run, but nothing remained the same about the methods used to produce it. That was the imperative laid down by Henry Ford” (Brinkley, page 151).

The scale of production was astounding. “In the assembly line’s first year of operation [1913], output of Model Ts shot up from 82,000 to 189,000. By 1916, it stood at 585,000. In 1921, Ford produced one million automobles; by 1923, two million.” (Watts, page 135). In 1923 the population of the US was xxx. The Highland Park plant covered 65 acres (page 14, Watts) and the River Rouge plant covered xx acres. In 1913, a Model T cost $500 (Watts, page 146). The average worker in the US earned xxx.

These two concepts - a car with mass appeal and the assembly line as a means for efficient production -- required each other. Because of the scale of production, efficient methods were possible; because of the efficient production methods, the price of the car could be kept low enough to have mass appeal. But the two ideas required a third idea.

Ford found that production by an assembly line allowed him to hire workers with less skill, some of whom were immigrants who spoke little English, making communication difficult (Ford started a school for immigrants), but he also found that such work and such workers led to turnover, absenteeism, and poor quality. “For example, daily absences ... in 1913 amounted to 10 percent; the rate of labor turnover during that same year reached a stunning 370 percent” (Watts, page 181). The gains in productivity from new methods had been impressive but were still disappointing.

In January 1914, the Ford Motor Company announced that it would pay its workers $5 per day, almost double what they had been getting. The decision was a combination of genuine desire to share the profits and reduce the worries of workers, a practical solution using good will to hire loyal employees, a way to reform and perhaps control workers (the $5 per day was paid only to workers if Ford investigators found they met certain moral and social standards in their private as well as work lives), and, perhaps most importantly, the desire to fuel consumerism. A worker making $5 a day could buy a car (Watts pages 182-184).

Efficient production was linked to a mass market which now, in turn, was linked to the ability of ordinary workers to buy the product they were making.

Ford was an amazingly well known figure in America, although he significantly embellished his personal history, his accomplishments, and himself in order to promote himself -- and his product. Watts sets the story straight, for example, that, while Ford’s father would have preferred his son become a farmer, they did not, as Ford told the tale, clash over the son’s mechanical hobbies, especially watch repair, when Ford was a child. His book My Life and Work (1922) was a best seller (Watts page 4). In his second book Today and Tomorrow (1926), he pointed out that Americans now had to decide how to spend their leisure time (Watts page 110). He promoted camping, going camping with his friends John Burroughs (naturalist, poet, and philosopher), Thomas Edison, and Harvey Firestone; they called themselves the Four Vagabonds (Watts, page 159). He was portrayed in the press as “a man of the people, defender of the work ethic, and responsible steward of wealth who shied away from the glare of direct publicity” (page 174, Watts). Watts says that Ford’s family minister, Samuel S. Marquis, concluded that “Ford’s folk-hero image was partly genuine and party contrived, accurate in its essence yet self-consciously magnified” (page 176).

Ford was obviously a complicated human being. His dark side was shown in his autocratic domination, even humiliation of his only child, his son, Edsel Ford, who died at age 49 in 1943, Edsel’s ill health at least exacerbated by the stress of working with his father. Ford was also a vicious anti-Semite. Ford’s behavior during his defense in a slander trial brought by a Jewish labor organizer in the late 1920s and during labor unrest in the 1930s led many to change their opinion of him (Watts, page 462).

[What the term Fordism means to sociologists and historians. Charlie Chaplin Modern Times. Aldous Huxley Brave New World In the year of our Ford, with dates calculated from the date of the first Model T.]

Ford deserves to be remembered as a builder of systems. Thomas P. Hughes, in his book American Genesis, points out that inventions such as “the incandescent light, the radio, the airplane, and the gasoline-driven automobile, occupy center stage, but these inventions were embedded within technological systems” (page 3). Samuel Insull and others had in the early 1900s created a reliable electrical system (page 232). Edison, upon whose inventions this system relied, wrote about how each part of the system, including the lightbuld, had to work together (Hughes, page 73).