The automotive assembly line has come a long way from Ford Motor Co.’s first moving-vehicle line, which started its motion 100 years ago today.
Back then, in 1913, a winch and a rope moved Model Ts through the Highland Park Assembly Plant, where 140 factory workers performed specific tasks toward a completed car. With its advent, the assembly line created hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs, but made others obsolete. It has refined car and truck manufacturing, improved quality and safety of cars around the globe, and duplicated its efficiencies to other industries such as aircraft.
“If you look at the way it changed the cost structure of the industry and the way it changed society, we’d be wrong not to consider it the biggest innovation ever,” said Bruce Hettle, Ford’s executive director of global vehicle manufacturing.
Henry Ford said, “The first step in (mass production) came when we began taking the work to the men, instead of the men to the work,” according to the biography “I Invented the Modern Age.”
Henry Ford didn’t invent the assembly line — in fact, his idea would not have been possible if not for Cadillac founder Henry Leland, who introduced to the auto industry the concept of interchangeable parts. But Ford was first to implement the line, allowing Ford Motor Co. to increase production of its Model T sevenfold and drop the price by nearly half — from $600 to $360 — during a five-year stretch from 1912 to 1916.
Today’s moving automobile assembly lines are part human and part machine, capable of switching on the fly to different models of cars and trucks according to demand. Computer-controlled robots perform precise welds on chassis parts, while workers carry out tasks that machines alone cannot.
And now the production lines are more flexible than ever. Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne is one of the best examples. At the plant, the automaker makes five models with varying performance and efficiency qualities: A Focus compact with a naturally aspirated engine, an all-electric Focus, a hybrid and plug-in hybrid C-Max crossover, and a performance-oriented Focus ST.