Henry Ford designed his first moving assembly line in 1913, and revolutionised the manufacturing processes of his Ford Model T.
This assembly line, at the first Ford plant in Highland Park, Michigan, became the benchmark for mass production methods around the world.
A simple idea
It was Henry's intention to produce the largest number of cars, to the simplest design, for the lowest possible cost. When car ownership was confined to the privileged few, Henry Ford's aim was to "put the world on wheels" and produce an affordable vehicle for the general public.
How Ford first built cars
In the early days, Ford built cars the same way as everybody else – one at a time. The car sat on the ground throughout the build as mechanics and their support teams sourced parts and returned to the car to assemble it from the chassis upwards. To speed the process up, cars were then assembled on benches which were moved from one team of workers to the next. But this was not fast, as Ford still needed skilled labour teams to assemble the 'hand-built' car. So production levels were still low and the price of the car was higher to cover the costs of mechanics.
What was needed was automation. Henry and his engineers invented machines to make large quantities of the parts needed for the vehicle and devised methods of assembling the parts as fast as they were made. They were ready for the breakthrough.
To achieve Henry Ford’s goal of mass consumption through mass production, productivity needed to increase. At the Detroit factory in Michigan, workers were placed at appointed stations and the chassis was hauled along between them using strong rope. The chassis stopped at each station, where parts were fitted, until it was finally completed.
An impressive result
Henry Ford had built on the basic principles of early pioneers such as Elihu Root, who masterminded an assembly system for Samuel Colt, which divided the manufacturing process in order to simplify it.
He continued experimenting until every practice was refined, and his mass production vision became a reality.
Another initiative was to use interchangeable parts that could be put together easily by unskilled workers. The experiments continued with gravity slides and conveyors. Naturally, even the placement of men and tools was meticulously researched to ensure the production line ran as efficiently as possible.
The sum of its parts
Each department, in the manufacturing process was broken down into its constituent parts. These sub-assembly lines were set up in each area until, as Henry was heard to remark, "everything in the plant moved." As a result, production speeds increased – sometimes they were up to four times faster.
The final assembly line
The ultimate step was the creation of the moving final assembly line. Starting with a bare chassis, it moved along the line and through each workstation until a complete car was driven off under its own power. An essential part of this process was that all feeder lines along the route were synchronised to supply the right parts, at the right time.
Reaping the rewards
This combination of accuracy, continuity and speed introduced mass production to the world. At Highland Park, Model T production reached record levels, with a complete car leaving the line every 10 seconds of every working day. Ford was able to cut prices, double the minimum daily wage to $5, produce a superior product and still make a profit.
At this time, two million Model Ts were being produced by Ford each year and sold at just $260 – a very affordable price for its time.
The Model T started a rural revolution. The $5 day wage and the philosophy behind it, started a social revolution. The moving assembly line started an industrial revolution.