Oct. 6 -- On this day, 100 years ago, Henry Ford and a hand-picked team of industrial engineers rigged a rudimentary final assembly line at the Highland Park Assembly plant, where the popular Model T automobile had been built since its launch in 1908. The team constructed a crude system along an open space at the plant 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 12 hours and 30 minutes to five hours and 50 minutes. Soon the line was improved with a power-drive "endless" conveyor system that was flush with the floor and wide enough to accommodate the chassis, with room for workers on both sides.
By 1914, continuous improvement had whittled the time required for assembly to 93 minutes. This, along with other new ideas from Ford and his team, would revolutionize work and wages and help build America's great middle class.
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.
Henry Ford says in his autobiography, "My Life and Work," "more economical methods of production did not begin all at once. They began gradually - just as we began gradually to make our own parts.
"'Model T' was the first motor that we made ourselves. The great economies began in assembling and then extended to other sections so that, while to-day we have skilled mechanics in plenty, they do not produce automobiles - they make it easy for others to produce them."
In the beginning, vehicles were assembled on benches or "props" of furniture. They were then pushed from one location to another, where the pieces were fixed. Later, the workers of Ford tried to move the pieces from the production line via inclined treadmills. This innovation accelerated production, though most of the cars were still done by hand.
A breakthrough came in April 1913. Production engineer Charles Sorensen tried a new way to put together the components of the flywheel magneto. The operation was divided into 29 separate steps. Workers placed only one part in the assembly before pushing the flywheel down the line to the next employee.
Previously, it had taken one employee about 20 minutes to assemble a flywheel magneto. Divided among 29 men, the job took 13 minutes. It was eventually trimmed to five minutes. This approach was applied gradually to the construction of the engine and other parts.
Of this development, Henry Ford wrote: "I believe that this was the first moving line ever installed. The idea came in a general way from the overhead trolley that the Chicago packers use in dressing beef."
The development of the moving assembly line led Ford to innovate the company's relationship with employees.
Henry Ford soon realized that he needed a stable, dependable and well-trained workforce for the line to operate at capacity. In the early days, Ford saw a high rate of turnover, as much as 378 percent, or 53,000 employees per year, according to Henry Ford's own accounting.
Ultimately, to put an end to production losses, months after establishing the moving assembly line Henry Ford made a bold move that shocked his peers and energized a potential workforce. 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 Midwest, according to Ford's accounting of the time.
Ford cars built: 82,388
Assembly time: 12.5 hours
Ford cars built: 585,388
Assembly time: 1.5 hours
In their own words
Henry FOrd: "I have heard it said, in fact I believe it is quite a current thought, that we have taken skill out of work. We have not. We have put in skill. We have put a higher skill into planning, management, and tool building, and the results of that skill are enjoyed by the man who is not skilled." - from "My Life and Work"
Charles Sorensen: "What was worked out at Ford was the practice of moving the work from one worker to another until it became a complete unit, then arranging the flow of these units at the right time and the right place to a moving final assembly line from which came a finished product. Regardless of earlier uses of some of these principles, the direct line of succession of mass production and its intensification into automation stems directly from what we worked out at Ford Motor Company between 1908 and 1913. Henry Ford is generally regarded as the father of mass production. He was not. He was the sponsor of it." - from his 1956 memoir "My Forty Years with Ford"
Sources: Ford Motor Company; "My Life and Work: An Autobiography of Henry Ford," "My Forty Years with Ford," a memoir by Charles E. Sorensen with Samuel T. Williamson
(c) 2013 ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved.
Original headline: Oct. 7: A day the world changed
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