Timeline: The History of the Assembly Line


1913: At Henry Ford’s new 57-acre Highland Park plant, designed by Detroit architect Albert Kahn, the automaker introduces the moving assembly line, which brings each car past stationary workers for the first time. The line consists of two strips of metal plates – one under the wheels on each side of the car – that run the length of the factory.

1917: Construction begins on Ford’s Rouge complex. The facility eventually contains 93 structures, 90 miles of railroad tracks, 120 miles of conveyors, and 53,000 machine tools, and employs 75,000 workers. Kahn designs most of the complex. On three-story structure at the site is erected to build Eagle Boats for use in World War I. The war ends before the boats are put into action.

1922: At the Rouge, Ford manufactures more than 1 million cars for the first time. Henry Ford’s personal fortune is estimated at $750 million.

1941: When the nation goes to war against Germany, Italy, and Japan, the major automakers and their suppliers convert their assembly lines to build tanks, bombers, Jeeps, and weapons. President Roosevelt refers to Detroit as “the Great Arsenal of Democracy.”

1942-45: The first mass-produced airplane, the B-24 Liberator bomber, is manufactured at Ford’s Willow Run plant. Despite fairly high turnover rates and slow initial output, the plant manages to construct 650 B-24s a month in two nine-hour shifts a day. In total, the plant cranks out more than 8,600 aircrafts.

1961: General Motors installs the first robotic arm, invented by George Devol, for use on assembly lines. The arm weighs 4,000 pounds, costs $25,000, and is installed in a plant in Trenton, N.J.

1969: Victor Scheinman, at Stanford University, invents an all-electric, six-axis articulated robot arm. It is the first robotic arm capable of assembling parts and components in repeated, continuous patterns. The design becomes standard, and still influences robotic engineering.

1980s: The Japanese popularize “just in the time” delivery of auto parts to factory floors, thus reducing warehousing costs.

2013 and beyond: At an electronic factory in the Netherlands, 128 robot arms complemented by numerous video cameras handle multiple manufacturing tasks. The arms work so fast that they must be enclosed in glass cages to prevent injuries. And they do it all without a coffee break – three shifts a day, 365 days a year.