Inside Extreme Scale Tech|Saturday, October 25, 2014
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Looking to the Future as the Assembly Line Turns 100 

One hundred years after the birth of Ford’s assembly line, it’s not hard to mark just how much innovation came from the automaker’s assembly lines.

When the company first went into production in 1909, the cars were pulled along by a rope that connected each vehicle, but it wasn’t until October 1913 that the rope was exchanged for a conveyor belt.

The result was Ford’s first assembly line at the Highland Park Assembly Plant. While it’s arguably primitive by today’s standards, Paul Eisenstein, publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com, says that it’s rather like assembly lines we see today.

In an interview with NPR, Eisenstein explains that Henry Ford’s impetus to developing the assembly line was a simple matter of economics: “The horseless carriage went from a curiosity to something millions of Americans were interested in. The problem was that he, first of all, needed to be able to produce enough to meet demand, but he also needed to drop the price enough to continue to expand the market.”

But Ford’s inspiration has a darker history. While assembly lines were made to be a clean, mechanical solution to human inefficiency, Ford actually got the idea from places defined by nature and mess: the slaughterhouses of Cincinnati and Chicago.

Instead of assembly lines, these plants had “disassembly lines,” where a cow’s carcass could be put on a meat hook and moved from one worker to the next, each of which were assigned to cut only one piece of meat to boost efficiency.

And as we already know, Ford was able to tap into the same efficiency. Originally each car had to be sold for $800 to make a profit, but by the time the assembly line was up and running, the price was cut to as little as $220 per vehicle. “It sounds great now, but when you consider inflation, [$800] was still a lot of money,” Eisenstein says. “By the time Henry Ford got this going, he was knocking them out at a rate of one a minute, about as much as they can produce in a factory today.”

Beyond innovating manufacturing technology and giving life to the automotive industry, one of Ford’s greatest marks was the change that he provided not just for Ford workers, but for middle class that was built around them as well.

“It was a tough place to work.” Eisenstein explains. “It wasn’t unusual for people to come in and get a job on the line and last only a few weeks. It helped, because it convinced Henry Ford to pay a reasonable wage. That’s where you got the $5-a-day wage. And not only did that keep workers on the line, but it also, well, it helped create a market for his cars.”

“It helped create an American middle class, because other industries started to match these wages. And suddenly, America could afford to buy a Model T,” he added.

But as one listener pointed out, a $5-a-day wage relative to a $220 car means that employees could purchase a Model T in only 45 days of labor. By today’s standards, buying Ford’s baseline sedan, the Taurus, which sells for roughly $26,700, would require a salary of $154,267 per year if the buyer was looking to afford the car in the same 45-day window.

Eisenstein summed up the lesson of Ford’s assembly line by saying, “Everything in our modern life is there, either directly or indirectly because of the breakthrough vision that Henry Ford had 100 years ago. Even if you get something that wasn’t produced on the assembly line, the simple fact that you can probably afford to buy it comes out because of the changes to our society, the creation of a middle class created by the automotive assembly line.”

But already the middle class of today has made it clear that it’s not the middle class of 1913, and based on Eisenstein’s estimation of the assembly line’s future, it’s doubtful that we can expect a similar revolution anytime soon.

While automakers are already experimenting with the assembly line, and Eisenstein admits that 3D printing could have a growing role in its future, he anticipates that automation and an educated workforce will be staples of manufacturing in years to come, which is a far cry from the circumstances that were able to build the nation’s foundation a century ago.

“Will we wind up seeing assembly lines—not necessarily cars, but will we see other assembly lines replaced by 3D printing and other advanced manufacturing techniques? Possibly,” he said. “But most people believe that going forward, the assembly line won’t be all that different. It’ll be more flexible, automation will increase, but we could see some manufacturing shift to new methods such as 3D printing.”

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