100 Years of the Moving Assembly Line
Experience a transformative innovation's history.
Experience a transformative innovation's history.
As today marks the 100th anniversary of the moving assembly line invented by Ford Motor Company under the leadership of Henry Ford, the company is building on its legacy of innovation by expanding advanced manufacturing capabilities and introducing groundbreaking technologies that could revolutionize mass production for decades to come.
Ford is rapidly expanding its advanced manufacturing capabilities and boosting global production to meet surging consumer demand. By 2017, Ford will increase its global flexible manufacturing to produce on average four different models at each plant around the world to allow for greater adaptability based on varying customer demand. Ford also projects 90 percent of its plants around the world will be running on a three-shift or crew model by 2017, which will help increase production time more than 30 percent.
“One hundred years ago, my great-grandfather had a vision to build safe and efficient transportation for everyone,” said Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford. “I am proud he was able to bring the freedom of mobility to millions by making cars affordable to families and that his vision of serving people still drives everything we do today.”
Also in 2017, virtually all Ford vehicles will be built off nine core platforms, boosting manufacturing efficiency, while giving customers the features, fuel efficiency and technology they want anywhere in the world. Today, Ford builds vehicles on 15 platforms and has the freshest lineup in the industry.
“Henry Ford’s core principles of quality parts, workflow, division of labor and efficiency still resonate today,” said John Fleming, Ford executive vice president of global manufacturing. “Building on that tradition, we’re accelerating our efforts to standardize production, make factories more flexible and introduce advanced technologies to efficiently build the best vehicles possible at the best value for our customers no matter where they live.”
Ford’s recent expansions in global manufacturing and production have helped to retain 130,000 hourly and salaried jobs around the world.
They also put the company on pace to produce 6 million vehicles in 2013 – approximately 16 vehicles every 60 seconds around the world. By 2015, Ford will have opened the facilities below:
2011: Ford Sollers Elabuga Assembly Plant – Russia
2012: Ford Sollers Naberezhnye Chelny Assembly Plant – Russia
2012: Chongqing #2 Assembly Plant – China
2012: Craiova Engine Plant – Romania
2012: Ford Thailand Motors – Thailand
2013: Chongqing Engine Plant – China
2013: Nanchang Assembly – China
2014: Camaçari Engine Plant – Brazil
2014: Chongqing #3 Assembly Plant – China
2014: Chongqing Transmission – China
2014: Sanand Assembly Plant – India
2014: Sanand Engine Plant – India
2015: Hangzhou Assembly – China
2015: Ford Sollers Elabuga Engine Plant – Russia
One hundred years ago today, Henry Ford and his team at Highland Park assembly plant launched the world’s greatest contribution to manufacturing – the first moving assembly line. It simplified assembly of the Ford Model T’s 3,000 parts by breaking it into 84 distinct steps performed by groups of workers as a rope pulled the vehicle chassis down the line.
The new process revolutionized production and dropped the assembly time for a single vehicle from 12 hours to about 90 minutes.
By reducing the money, time and manpower needed to build cars as he refined the assembly line over the years, Ford was able to drop the price of the Model T from $850 to less than $300. For the first time in history, quality vehicles were affordable to the masses. Eventually, Ford built a Model T every 24 seconds and sold more than 15 million worldwide by 1927, accounting for half of all automobiles then sold.
“Ford’s new approach spread rapidly, not only to other automakers but also to manufacturers of phonographs, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators and other consumer goods,” said Bob Casey, former curator of transportation at The Henry Ford, and author of The Model T: A Centennial History. “The assembly line became the characteristic American mode of production.”
In 1914, Ford instituted the “$5 workday,” a significant wage at the time, to enable his employees to buy the vehicles they built. The move created loyalty among Ford workers and is credited with giving rise to a new middle class of consumers unencumbered by geography, free to travel the open roads, to live where they please and chase the American dream.
Ford fans today are honoring Henry Ford and his ingenious moving assembly line. National Geographic Channel will mark the occasion with an in-depth new documentary as part of its “Ultimate Factories” program airing Friday, Oct. 18. Information about the documentary and local air times can be found here.
Ford already is realizing the benefits of advanced manufacturing technologies that will shape the future. For example, Ford engineers are developing a highly flexible, first-of-its-kind, patented technology to rapidly form sheet-metal parts for low-volume production use. The technology, known as Ford Freeform Fabrication Technology, or F3T, will lower costs and speed delivery times for prototype stamping molds – within three business days versus two to six months for prototypes made using conventional methods.
Additionally, Ford is expanding its capabilities in 3D printing, which creates production-representative 3D parts layer by layer for testable prototypes. With 3D printing, Ford can create multiple versions of one part at a time and deliver prototype parts to engineers for testing in days rather than months.
Ford also is investing in robotic innovations to improve vehicle quality and production efficiencies. For example, the company’s new dirt detection system uses robotic vision to create a digital model of each vehicle in final assembly to analyze paint and surface imperfections in comparison with a perfect model. The result has been significantly improved surface quality on Ford vehicles and more time for operators on the assembly line to address complex issues. Robotics, in this case, allow Ford to work smarter in improving products for customers and allowing workers to focus on more critical thinking tasks.
Finally, through Ford’s “virtual factory,” the company can improve quality and cut costs in real-world manufacturing facilities by creating and analyzing computer simulations of the complete vehicle production process. This includes simulations of how assembly line workers have to reach and stretch when building a vehicle to ensure the work conditions meet Ford ergonomic standards. Since the implementation of this virtual process in 2001, the number of ergonomic issues during physical builds has been reduced by nearly 20 percent.
“Technologies such as 3D printing, robotics and virtual manufacturing may live in research but have real-world applications for tomorrow and beyond,” said Paul Mascarenas, chief technical officer and vice president, Ford Research and Innovation. “We use Henry Ford’s spirit of innovation as a benchmark for bringing new technologies into the manufacturing process.”
The $5 Work Day
If the development of the moving assembly line was Henry Ford's claim to fame in the eyes of industrialists, manufacturers and business men, then establishing the $5 per day wage was his way of guaranteeing success.
378 Percent Turnover Rate
Without a doubt the moving assembly line, as it applied to the automotive industry, represented a monumental advancement in production capabilities and potential earnings. Mass production of automobiles also drove down the cost of each vehicle, making vehicle ownership a reality for more people.
However, in order to optimize the assembly line, a stable workforce was needed that could be trained and then relied upon to fulfill their assigned tasks on a daily basis. In the early days of automotive production, a high rate of turnover (as much as 378 percent, or 53,000 employees per year, according to Henry Ford in his book, My Life and Times) kept manufacturing facilities from meeting production goals. As a result, Ford and his team placed significant effort into studying other manufacturing facilities in search of ways to secure staffing.
Landmark Annoucement: The Middle Class Emerges
Ultimately, to put an end to production losses, months after establishing the moving assembly line Henry Ford made a decision that shocked many of his auto-industry peers while simultaneously spreading hope to thousands of average citizens. Henry Ford raised the base pay of plant workers from $2.34 for a nine hour day to $5 for an eight hour day.
Just as the moving assembly line changed the business model for building cars, this change in pay made a drastic and lasting impression on society. The $5 work day drew workers from around the world, helped build the middle class, and fostered “The Great Migration” of workers from the south to the industrial mid-west – all activities cemented into the history books school children still study today.
Ford celebrates the 100th anniversary of the innovation that made the greatest impact on manufacturing, industry and society as a whole: the moving assembly line.
Impact of a Big Idea
Not only did the moving assembly line drastically increase the pace at which cars were produced, it also drove down the price of each car making them more accessible to the masses.
Bringing the product to the worker instead of moving various teams of workers to the product became the idea that overhauled the manufacturing industry as a whole. A new standard had taken over making it possible to generate more products and greater income through mass production.
How it Began
When Henry Ford began making cars in the early 1900s, “state-of-the-art” manufacturing meant car bodies delivered by horse-drawn carriage, with teams of workers assembling automobiles atop sawhorses. 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. Fortunately for the future of industry, these archaic practices came to an end Oct. 7, 1913.
Observers of the time were already suggesting that someone needed to invent a way to mass produce cars, and by doing so bring down the price to enable more people to afford the luxury. J.J. Seaton wrote in Harper’s Weekly in January 1910 that “the man who can successfully solve this knotty question and produce a car that will be entirely sufficient mechanically, and whose price will be within the reach of millions who cannot yet afford automobiles, will not only grow rich but will be considered a public benefactor.”
Car for the Masses
Ford already had developed in 1908 the Model T, a “car for the masses.” Now it was time to find a way to make many of these cars at a rapid pace and with high quality. Ford surrounded himself with experts from various fields, such as brewing, canning and steel making, and each contributed his expertise to a solution for mass auto manufacturing. Ford’s vision and leadership enabled him to create a climate where his team could collaborate, bring new ideas and bring forward several factory innovations that ultimately led to the development of the moving assembly line.
A Revolution is Sparked
On Oct. 7, 1913, Ford’s team rigged a rudimentary final assembly line at the Highland Park Assembly plant. Engineers constructed a crude system along an open space at the plant, complete with a winch and a rope stretched across the floor. On this day, 140 assemblers were stationed along a 150-foot line and they installed parts on the chassis as it was dragged across the floor by the winch. Man hours of final assembly dropped from more than 12 hours under the stationary assembly system to fewer than three. In January 1914, the rope was replaced by an endless chain.
By bringing the work to the men, Ford engineers managed to smooth out differences in work pace. They slowed down the faster employees and forced slower ones to quicken their pace. The results of mass production were immediate and significant. In 1912, Ford Motor Company produced 82,388 Model Ts, and the touring car sold for $600. By 1916, Model T production had risen to 585,388, and the price had dropped to $360.
“Fordism” – large-scale production combined with high wages – was born and spread to other industries around the world. Soon, even small automobile companies producing only a few hundred cars per year were attempting to install moving assembly lines.
Early Model T
Early Model T assembly at Highland Park Plant.
10 Millionth Model T
Thanks to the moving assembly line, Ford was able to produce the 10 millionth Model T by 1924.
As the company expands, plants like this one in Dallas, Texas, sprout up around the world.
By 1941, the vehicles coming down the line had changed significantly, adding elements of complexity to the assembly line.
Make Way for Mercury
A line of Mercury models reaches the final assembly stage in 1946.
A Ford crew inspects an engine circa 1946.
Dearborn Assembly Plant in 1954.
Pre-Ergonomic Plant Design
Before ergonomic design made its way into the plants, some workers worked alongside the vehicles while others made progess in the pits below.
An engine is placed into a Ford Boss 429 Mustang in 1969.
An F-150 body is placed onto the frame at the Louisville Assembly Plant in 1973.
A team performing quality control duties at Dearborn assembly in 1975.
F-Series trucks undergoing inspection at Twin Cities Assembly.
The mechanization of the assembly line continues to evolve over time, as seen in this 2004 shot of the Ford Mustang being produced at Flat Rock Assembly Plant.
People Still Vital
While machines and robots have been introduced into plants to reduce physical stress on workers and increase productivity, people still play the most vital role in bringing a car together.
Healthier Work Enviroment
Improved processes and ergonomics, as displayed here in 2012 at the Louisville Assembly Plant, have brought workers out of the pits and into a safer, healthier work environment.