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Learn About The Assembly Line

Classic Car History

While Henry Ford is often credited with the invention of the assembly line, in reality he only perfected an already developed system. An assembly line is a process of manufacturing a larger item from its smaller component parts. Workers in an assembly line add only one – sometimes quite small – part to a larger item in succession until it is completed. Rather than the worker traveling to the item, it is brought to the worker, creating a line and deriving its name of an “assembly line”.

The purpose of an assembly line is to produce large quantities of goods at a relatively low cost. Lower production costs mean higher profits, and the faster an item is produced the sooner it will be available for purchase, making profits land in pockets quicker. For an assembly line to properly function, however, it is necessary for all component parts to be designed into the process. This is commonly referred to as “interchangeable parts.” The fast pace of an assembly line requires that each preceding part be organized to permit the perfect sequencing to prepare the item for the next part.

Evidence of the use of assembly lines can be traced to the first Chinese Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, who lived from 259 – 210 BC, and who used the system to create clay figures. In pre-Renaissance times the line was used in bookmaking. Previously hand-copied, the assembly line changed the way books were created and made them less expensive and more readily available to the general populace. Many scholars credit this transformation in bookmaking with ushering in the Renaissance. During the Renaissance, however, the assembly line was primarily used by Venetians to build warships.

It was not until the 1800’s that the assembly line became similar to what it is today. Mainly used in the Chicago and Cincinnati meat packing industries, workers on an assembly line were tasked with butchering one portion of the animal. While, technically, this means that such lines were “disassembling lines”, they are the first instance of a mass-producing assembling system in the United States.

The idea of using an assembly line for automobiles was instituted by Ransom Olds in 1901. Olds’ system was so well-formed that within a year he had increased production by more than 485%: from 425 to 2,500 cars a year. In 1908, Henry Ford turned his sights towards the assembly line as a means to make automobiles more affordable and, therefore, more accessible to the general public. By 1913, Ford had decreased the per-auto construction time from 12.5 hours to 93 minutes, and by 1914 he claimed 48% of the automobile market.

Ford’s assembly line stretched over four stories in his building. The factory housing the line was developed around it, and not vice versa. Therefore, significant changes were made to the building to accommodate the assembly line’s needs. At the very top, workers assembled the engine; at the bottom the engine was placed in an automobile and the car driven out of an oversized doorway. But Ford was not only a businessman with an eye on profits; as the owner of a company that would change the world, he recognized the potential for error and ensured that employees were provided with training and medical care.

Even though assembly lines existed prior, it was Ford who perfected the line and truly made it a staple of the American auto industry and the manufacturing sector. Ford’s assembly line demonstrated the effect of planning and efficiency on profits, concepts that today remain two of the most influential on a businesses’ success.

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Article by
Matt Robertson
Matt is the Managing Partner at Leland-West Insurance Brokers, Inc. He started with the firm while still a college student, way back in 1984. According to Matt his only remaining hobby is Motorsport ... because its all he can afford ("will work for tires"). Reach him at matt@lelandwest.com