Freedom to Assemble

Henry Ford ushered in the moving assembly line 100 years ago, jump-starting mass production and the consumption of nearly everything.

When Gary Cowger went to work inside an automobile factory in 1965, brute strength was required at many of the workstations. Cowger, a rugged 18-year-old at the time, had wanted to play college baseball, but rather than showing off in the summer for pro scouts, he landed a seasonal job at General Motors’ Fairfax Assembly Plant in Kansas City, less than two miles from his family’s home.

Inside the vast factory, the body shop where hoods, doors, and trunk lids were fitted to stamped-and-welded steel chassis units was a place of a dozen perils. Workers banged their heads and wrenched their backs. They risked being pinned or pinched, being burned by sparks from welding equipment, or lacerating their skin on rough steel edges. The air wrenches were better than the hand tools, yet, in their own way, they were noisy bludgeons. Utilizing hydraulic assist to ease muscle-straining tasks remained little more than a good idea.

Cowger — who, after 44 years with GM, retired as group vice president of global manufacturing and labor relations in 2009 — was confronted with a seemingly never-ending parade of doors for Buicks and Pontiacs.

“You picked that big door up,” he recalls, “and you took it off the rack that it got shipped in from the stamping plant and hung it on the conveyor.” Cowger says he also manually operated paint guns, which were like lacquer-breathing dragons.

“I’ve got to tell you, when you trigger that gun 60 times an hour to spray whatever part of the body you’re spraying, your hand — until you get used to it and develop muscles — is pretty sore by the end of the day.” As a result, the precision of the spraying itself often became compromised.

Critics have long maintained that the 100-year-old method of building cars by grinding and stamping out pieces of steel and bolting, or welding them together, was dehumanizing. More recently, the process has been called outdated; it’s simply an evolution of the Model T methods that Ford Motor Co. pioneered at its Highland Park Assembly Plant. Proponents counter that the traditional assembly line has evolved into a highly refined process, and it’s hard to imagine a radical change taking place anytime soon.

Timeline: The History of the Assembly Line / Click Here

Cowger led the implementation of GM’s global manufacturing system, which was first showcased at its Lansing Grand River Assembly plant a few years back. Robots, artificial intelligence, and laser-guided precision now predominate the paint and body shops at assembly plants, and the underpinnings of vehicles are standardized in GM plants worldwide.

As always, efficiency is the name of the game. But where human beings perform tasks, they operate in safer, quieter, cleaner, and more ergonomic environments. “Today the operator has very little wasted motion, and most of the work that is done is value-added work,” Cowger says. Quality is hardly an issue nowadays. As proof, just look at the shrunken, little-used repair area at the end of any assembly line.

Nevertheless, assembling a vehicle continues to have its challenges. For example, supply lines that feed the plants can be fragile. Asian automakers Toyota and Honda are just now getting over the 2011 earthquake in Japan and subsequent floods in Thailand. In the same year, a fire knocked out a chemical plant in Germany, causing many manufacturers to scramble for a new source of plastic resin. China, meanwhile, has steadily been buying up large quantities of precious metals, which has driven up prices.


From Detroit to the World

Observing its centennial this year, the automotive assembly line was implemented more than five decades before Cowger ever hung a Buick Wildcat’s door. In the 19th century, less complicated but nevertheless precision-made products such as Colt firearms used interchangeable parts and a moving assembly process. R.E. Olds had sequenced some of the production of his Oldsmobiles in 1902 by staging machines, workers, and parts. Detroit historian Charles Hyde adds that there had also been “large-scale production” of bicycles and sewing machines.

Even so, Ford’s operation at the Highland Park plant was something altogether different. “Number one, it really made possible mass production of a very complicated machine — the automobile,” says Hyde, author of the forthcoming book, Arsenal of Democracy: The American Automobile Industry in World War II. “And let’s face it, the sewing machine is really a pretty simple machine compared to an automobile. So that’s really the accomplishment: it was mass-production. (Ford) kept increasing the production, which meant he could lower the price. The Model T was the first mass-consumption product of any complexity or costliness. Ford made 15 million of them, which at that time was a tremendous accomplishment.”

The idea of the assembly line came about in 1912 after some Ford workers visited a Swift & Co. meat packing plant in Chicago. Returning to Highland Park — where Ford had already moved into the Albert Kahn-designed factory on a 57-acre site — they told foreman William Klann about the precise timing and coordination of the overhead line that carried hogs, each dangling by an ankle, to their demise. Until now, approximately the same assembly process that had originated in Ford’s Piquette Avenue plant in Detroit remained in use: skilled craftsmen clustered around stationary cradles formed from sawhorses, building up to 50 cars at a time in one place until the axles were installed and the cars could roll.  

“I went down to Chicago, to the slaughterhouse, myself,” Klann recalled, explaining how he became convinced the process would suit automobile production. In the spring of 1913, he first sequenced the tasks involved in assembling a magneto, the Model T’s onboard electrical generating unit. Surrounded by bins of parts, it took a single craftsman about 20 minutes to assemble the entire magneto.

Klann’s new method broke down the assembly into 29 operations, removing all skill from the process. With a crew standing alongside a motorized conveyor belt, the assembly time per unit dropped to five minutes. As engine crankcase assemblies were added to the assembly line, followed by transmissions and axles, the dehumanizing aspect of such menial, repetitive work was disregarded.

“The moving conveyors continued to spread like kudzu throughout the plant, soon enveloping the other subassemblies,” writes historian Douglas Brinkley. Machines performed as many tasks as possible, and visitors to the factory remarked on the cacophony. One described how, in the four-story building, clanking and clattering and ethereal screeches combined against a background roar that could have come from Niagara Falls. Drive belts and hundreds of structural pillars obscured sight lines.


“Every piece of work in the shop moves,” Henry Ford said. “It may move on hooks, on overhead chains … it may travel on a moving platform, or it may go by gravity, but the point is that there is no lifting or trucking.” After an experimental line began to roll in August 1913, the time required to produce a chassis soon dwindled from more than 12 hours to just 93 minutes.

The authors of The Machine That Changed the World give the best description of the chassis line: “The moving line consisted of two strips of metal plates — one under the wheels on each side of the car — that ran the length of the factory. At the end of the line, the strips, mounted on a belt, rolled under the floor and returned to the beginning.” One enduring image showed finished Model T bodies sliding down a chute outside the factory building onto rolling chassis waiting below. 

“Highland Park was a classic lean-production facility,” says John Krafcik, president and CEO of Hyundai Motor America. As an MIT graduate student working with the authors of The Machine That Changed the World, Krafcik coined the term “lean production.”

“There’s no other way to describe it,” he says. “Henry Ford’s vision for the moving assembly line really didn’t require buffers or inventories. It was designed around the concept of continuous flow. He had this idea of continuously flowing streams flowing into a major river, and everything was to flow continuously in sequence without inventory or buffer stock.”

From building around 35,000 cars in 1911, Ford’s production jumped almost five-fold by 1913, when the total reached 170,211. The next year, the company made more than 300,000 cars while the rest of the industry combined to produce about 200,000. As ever more Model Ts were churned out, the sales price — originally $850 — sank as low as $290 by 1925. Ultimately, more than 15 million Model Ts issued from Highland Park, the Rouge Works, which succeeded it in 1921, and branch factories all over the country and the world.

Yet there was a dichotomy. While Ford encouraged a type of open-source development and the whole world learned beneficial production lessons from Highland Park, the line workers were minutely supervised; even whistling was prohibited. The $5-a-day wage, pioneered in 1914, was a kind of remedy as workers struggled against the tedious, unabating pace.


Assembly Line Technology Diffuses

The year 1922 was a high point at Ford Motor. Now operating from the Rouge Works, which had 120 miles of conveyors, the company manufactured more than 1 million cars a year for the first time, and Henry Ford’s personal fortune was estimated at $750 million. But Ford was missing production manager William Knudsen, who had set up the automaker’s branch factories. One of Knudsen’s final acts before he left Ford Motor for General Motors was to implement revisions to the production method in early 1921, improving the conveyor system and reducing from 15 to nine the number of workers needed to assemble a car.

Leaving behind Ford and a $50,000-a-year job, Knudsen soon found himself running the Chevrolet Division of GM, where he famously vowed to match Ford’s output. He set about changing Chevy’s production capacity and methods, saying, “We haven’t any extra reputation to begin with, so we can’t lose very much by making changes.” Ultimately known as the genius of production, Knudsen told his biographer he studied factory blueprints to ascertain “the rotation of the tools and machines (and) the flow of materials.” After implementing changes at the main plant in Flint, he duplicated the improvements in other Chevy plants. His strategy resulted in lowering costs.

Chevy first surpassed Ford’s sales in 1928, as the Model A was replacing the Model T. The 10-millionth Chevy was assembled in 1934; five years later, the 15-millionth vehicle rolled off the line. Competition, however, would contribute to another downside of mass production: speeding up the line. In part, author Ed Cray, in his book, Chrome Colossus: General Motors and Its Time,  pins the labor unrest that led to the famous sit-down strikes of 1936 and 1937 on “speed-ups that drained (the worker) of anything but the will to survive for another day.”

Despite these problems, opportunists saw the appeal of mass production. European automakers had studied American industry, but their craft-based system resisted change. That didn’t matter to Adolf Hitler, who forged ahead with his plan for a people’s car. He twice dispatched Ferdinand Porsche to learn Ford’s methods. An established designer of racing cars, Porsche was chosen to develop the huge Wolfsburg factory that would produce Beetles, but not in high volume until after World War II. The Beetle eventually displaced the Model T as the all-time leading seller. In turn, the Toyota Corolla would surpass the Beetle; Kiichiro Toyoda, who founded Toyota Motor Co., had visited the Rouge Works in 1929.

With the onset of  World War II and the necessity of arming Allied forces, Knudsen assumed leadership of the national war-production effort. U.S. Army officials accused him of favoritism when he plugged for the automobile industry, rather than locomotive and rail coach companies, to make battle tanks. He argued that the automobile industry had more experience in line production. “The people I want can get experience in shaping heavy metal faster than the people you want can get experience in line production,” Knudsen said. “I am thinking in terms of hundreds and thousands of tanks.”

A singularly devilish challenge was the mass production of the Bofors gun, a 40-millimeter anti-aircraft cannon of Swedish design. Its anatomy encompassed many small parts fitted to extremely close tolerances. “Let the (auto supplier) Timken people make the barrels and have the Chrysler people assemble the gun,” Knudsen said. Firestone built the gun carriages, and Pontiac supplemented Chrysler on final assembly.


Chrysler’s Tank Arsenal was built in Warren after Knudsen called company president K.T. Keller, directing him to start with the Army’s design for the M3 medium tank. “Make them in Detroit, and get going now,” he said. Continental Motors in downtown Detroit built the complicated Wright Whirlwind radial engine that powered the M3. In January 1942, with its plant running on three shifts, seven days a week, Continental shipped 675 engines. The government soon proposed increasing production to 2,000 engines per month.

All of Detroit chipped in. When it was commissioned to build Allison engines for aircraft, Cadillac found that only 12 percent of its existing machine tools suited the task — but its workforce rose to the occasion. Packard, meanwhile, produced Rolls-Royce Merlin aviation engines, while Ford built Pratt & Whitney engines in a mile-long factory at the Rouge.

When Charles Sorensen, Ford’s production whiz, saw how Consolidated Aircraft was craft-building B-24 bombers under the San Diego sun, he sought to have the work done in Detroit. “Here was a custom-made aircraft, put together as a tailor would cut and fit a suit of clothes,” Sorensen recalled. He promised Knudsen 540 B-24s per month, and a 975-acre site near Ypsilanti was developed for the Willow Run Assembly Plant. “The company was determined to bring automobile mass-production techniques to the airplane industry, and so the plant was an outsize version of any Ford Motor production line,” historian Brinkley writes.

The Willow Run factory embodied the best and worst of mass production, aiming for a furious pace but initially achieving only mediocre quality. Each plane comprised 550,000 parts and 700,000 rivets. Two final assembly lines paralleled each other, and when President Franklin Roosevelt visited on Sept. 18, 1942, his Lincoln convertible was driven around inside of the vast plant for more than an hour. Eventually, after many difficulties and continuous improvements, the quality of the final product neared perfection. By the end of the war, Ford had built 8,685 B-24s.

Japanese Refinements

Toyota Motor Co. had completed 2,685 cars when Eiji Toyoda took over from his Uncle Kiichiro in 1950. Eiji led the development of the Toyota Production System as the answer to uniquely Japanese constraints: lack of capital in the postwar period, scarce labor, and demand for variable output.

By the late 1950s, Toyota had developed numerous innovations and eliminated various problems: a hierarchical structure, inflexible lines, poor quality with large inventories, and waste. Rather than dividing labor into specialized subcategories, Toyota grouped workers together and challenged them to solve problems and continuously improve the process.

Workers were given the authority to stop the assembly line — unheard of before now — rather than let an error move along the line. The Toyota Production System was eventually copied in every industry worldwide. Its first inroad in the United States was in Fremont, Calif., where GM had opened a “four-in-one” plant — to produce Chevy, Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac cars — in 1962. Less than two decades later, it became the site of a joint venture with Toyota, known as New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., or NUMMI. Today, the plant is in its third incarnation, with Tesla Motors Co. using ultra-lean methods and multitasking robots to build electric-powered sedans.


“That was sort of like a crucible for lean production in the U.S.,” Krafcik, the first American engineer hired at NUMMI, says of the plant. He remembers hearing of Fremont’s formerly enormous repair and repainting areas, and realizing the long-standing process was designed “to show you’re prepared to fail.” From here, the precepts of the Toyota Production System spread throughout America. Under duress in the late 1980s, Ford, the stalwart forerunner, became the first Detroit automaker to explicitly adopt lean practices and, in one sense, return to its roots.

As automation simultaneously increased — creating so-called “turkey farms” of nodding, sometimes errant, robots — lean production underwent further refinements. Robots started to perform difficult and hazardous tasks with astonishing delicacy and precision. And unlike assembly line workers, who suffered from the physical and mental fatigue, robots would keep working. The New York Times recently reported on a Philips Electronics factory in the Netherlands where robot arms with “yoga-like flexibility” are guided by video cameras “through feats well beyond the capability of the most dexterous human.” Where people remain the preferable option for performing line operations, they enjoy hydraulic assist as strange, hissing machines lift heavy assemblies into place. Torque-controlled power tools that replaced the harsh, pneumatically-driven impact wrenches after the 1980s add a touch of grace.

“If you go through an assembly plant today,” says Cowger, “the conveyors are ergonomically designed so that the operator travels along with the work. There are ergonomically designed chairs that allow the operators to get in and out of the car to do their operations. There are systems today where the actual material for the car is kitted as that car goes into the trim shop, so all the operator needs is right in the car.”

Today’s assembly line — efficient, safe, and quiet — has evolved into something an early Highland Park worker or visitor might not immediately recognize.

Krafcik, who between NUMMI and Hyundai had a 14-year stint with Ford, says the mass-production model will continue to evolve, with workers seeking the right balance between minimum inventory and strategic stockpiles in case of a tsunami or a supplier plant fire. The flow will speed up, thanks to increasingly sapient automation in production and distribution routines. “In our world of very efficient economies, inefficient and wasteful does not win the game,” Krafcik says. “As for those who predict a radical transformation of the basic method of assembly, it’s just not going to happen in our lifetime.” db