January 2, 2014

Henry Ford’s Assembly Line Turns 100


1913: Experimenting with mounting body on Model T chassis. Ford tested various assembly methods to optimize the procedures before permanently installing the equipment. The actual assembly line used an overhead crane to mount the body.

Last month marked one hundred years since Henry Ford implemented the modern assembly line into his Model T automobile manufacturing process. The industrial engineering innovation resulted in production at an astounding rate—one Model T car every ninety-three minutes!—and had immense influence world-wide, across all industries, and soon became a requirement for success in the automotive industry.

Ford assembly line, 1913. The magneto assembly line was the first.

Although Ford is often credited as the architect of the assembly line, the inventions of the industrial revolution from the Northeastern United States and England laid the groundwork for this invention that helped to create modern product design and manufacturing. The assembly line was actually a creative process that took seven years and many visionaries to perfect. The idea first came to the Ford Motor Company after one of the manufacturer’s men visited a Chicago slaughterhouse, where a single worker was assigned to one area of an animal, performing the same task over and over while standing in place as the carcasses moved along a conveyor. Ironically, they called the concept, developed in 1867, a “disassembly line.”

In 1901 the Olds Motor Vehicle Company installed and patented an assembly line process in its own factory to build the first mass-produced car, the Oldsmobile Curved Dash. But Ford’s addition of conveyor belts to Olds’ process made the Ford assembly line far superior. Ford said, in his 1922 autobiography, My Life and Work, “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.”

Ford’s assembly line closely followed the basic principles of the slaughterhouse’s disassembly line—work is ordered sequentially, workers do one task with as little motion as possible, heavy lifting is performed by machines. According to Henry Ford in his book, “The principles of assembly are these:

(1) Place the tools and the men in the sequence of the operation so that each component part shall travel the least possible distance while in the process of finishing.

(2) Use work slides or some other form of carrier so that when a workman completes his operation, he drops the part always in the same place—which place must always be the most convenient place to his hand—and if possible have gravity carry the part to the next workman for his operation.

(3) Use sliding assembling lines by which the parts to be assembled are delivered at convenient distances.”

After years of trial and tweaking, Ford’s assembly line was releasing a Model T every three minutes. The one slow-down in Ford’s line was paint. The dry time and variety of colors available to consumers was causing a bottleneck. In 1914, the company dropped all paint options except for fast-drying japan black— a lacquer used on iron and steel and known for its durability and quick drying. The decision led to the well-known phrase attributed to Ford, “You can paint it any color, so long as it’s black.”

A modern automotive assembly line. 2006: Assembly line at Hyundai Motor Company’s car factory in Ulsan, South Korea.

Ford’s assembly line is credited for other manufacturing improvements, including a decrease in injury due to each worker’s limited movement within the factory, and increases in productivity that led to business model changes for many. A century later the assembly line remains the process by which many items—including automobiles—are manufactured. We salute Henry Ford and the many amazing minds who contributed to this world-changing industrial design innovation. And we wish a happy 100th birthday to the assembly line!

Just for fun, here’s a look at our favorite assembly line, courtesy of Lucy and Ethel. Enjoy the memories and the giggles as we celebrate Henry Ford whose assembly line turns 100!

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