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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Henry Ford’s Assembly Line Turns 100

Ford Motor Company marks the 100th anniversary of the assembly line.

The Model T went into production in 1909, and at first, Henry Ford tied the cars together by rope and yanked them down the assembly line.

But by October 1913, the rope was replaced by a conveyor belt, and gave way to, as Paul Eisenstein writes, an assembly line much like the ones we see today.

Ford installed the first rudimentary line at the Highland Park Assembly Plant in October, 1913 in Michigan.

Eisenstein also says that Ford’s assembly line has influenced far more than just the production of goods.

“Even if you get something that wasn’t produced on an assembly line, the simple fact that you can 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,” Eisenstein told Here & Now‘s Meghna Chakrabarti.




It's HERE AND NOW. Innovation is a hot word these days, but rarely is there an innovation so profound that it changes everything, from how we work to what we buy to how we live. Henry Ford's assembly line did all those things. And this month, the assembly line turns 100 years old.

Ford first installed a rudimentary line at the Highland Park Assembly Plant in October 1913, in Michigan. The rest is history, and Paul Eisenstein is going to walk us through it. Paul is publisher of the TheDetroitBureau.com. Great to have you back.

PAUL EISENSTEIN: Great to be with you.

CHAKRABARTI: So, first of all, tell me why Henry Ford even thought that he needed to speed up the production of the Model T?

EISENSTEIN: 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.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, I'm fascinated by where Henry Ford went to find his inspiration for the assembly line.

EISENSTEIN: They found inspiration in the slaughterhouses of Cincinnati and Chicago, where they were already running a concept called the disassembly line. Basically, they took a carcass of a cow, put it on a meat hook that they could slide around, where they push it from one worker to the next each. Each worker was assigned to slice off one particular cut of meat. It was a much faster process than ever before.

Well, they reversed the process. They created the assembly line, where they put together the vehicle one part at a time.

CHAKRABARTI: What effect did it have on the speed and the price that Ford was able to make his cars?

EISENSTEIN: Well, before, he needed a tremendous workforce to be able to put out maybe a couple hundred vehicles a week, and the price was in the $800-a-vehicle range. It sounds great now, but when you consider inflation, that was still a lot of money. By the time Henry Ford got this going, he was knocking them out at the rate of one a minute, about as much as they can produce in a factory today. And they were able to cut the price to as little as $220 a vehicle.

CHAKRABARTI: That was when the Highland Park Assembly Plant was fully up and running, as we said. But when they first started those early assembly lines in the plant, you write that they were actually hauling a car down the line with a rope.

EISENSTEIN: They started experimenting simply by pulling the cars along a makeshift assembly line. They started with rope. They quickly figured out to put it on an endless chain. And within about a year, you had an assembly line that pretty much looks like what we have today.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, Paul, that's sort of the technical and production end of things. What about the revolution that it had on the lives of the workers at the Ford company? How did it change their lives?

EISENSTEIN: Before the assembly line, people who worked to build cars were considered more or less craftsmen. What we bought tended to be expensive, handmade. Once the assembly line came along, all of a sudden, you had line workers who were basically there for their brawn and their speed, not for their - necessarily for their skills.

It was a tough place to work. 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 longer, 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.

CHAKRABARTI: We're talking with Paul Eisenstein about the 100th birthday of the assembly line. You're listening to HERE AND NOW.

And, Paul, this is really interesting to me, because it's those very same jobs that we've been talking about that contributed to the creation of the middle class. But lately, those are the jobs that are getting cut back or outsourced or mechanized. So I want to ask you about yet another criticism of assembly line work, and that is its drudgery, just doing the same action all day long. How has that changed over time?

EISENSTEIN: It's not as physical as it used to be. They have a focus on ergonomics today. So, for example, they'll literally roll to the side an entire car so that it makes it easier to get underneath to, say, put on the muffler or the like. And workers today are hired as much for their brainpower as they are for their brawn, because they have to be a participant in the quality process.

The old day, you built the car, it got off the line, and if there was a problem, you fixed it. Today, you can't afford to do that. You have to catch problems when they occur. And that means, in many cases, an assembly line worker who might not have been able to complete a job or had a bad part will pull a cord and shut the entire assembly line down until that problem is fixed.

The worker today is often being asked to have a degree. These people are asked to use their mind, as well as their muscle.

CHAKRABARTI: And, you know, several companies in different countries have tried, you know, variations on the assembly line. The Japanese really revolutionized assembly line production with the whole just-in-time concept, with inventory management and stuff. So we've seen changes in how manufacturing, as a whole, is done. What do you think the assembly line of the future is going to look like?

EISENSTEIN: We've seen a lot of experiments. Volvo tried to do something where they have work stations around a fixed vehicle, but it is not nearly as efficient as the assembly line. Going forward, we'll probably see some more automation. We'll see more efforts to improve ergonomics. Some of the breakthrough technologies could change things. For example, we're now seeing ways that you can literally print things.

CHAKRABARTI: The 3-D printers.

EISENSTEIN: The 3-D printing system. Will we wind up seeing assembly lines - not necessarily cars, but will we see other assembly lines replaced by 3-D printing and other advanced manufacturing techniques? Possibly. 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 3-D printing.

CHAKRABARTI: So what do you think, you know, is the big legacy, the big lesson, here?

EISENSTEIN: Everything in our modern life is there, either directly or indirectly because of that breakthrough vision that Henry Ford had 100 years ago. Even if you get something that wasn't produced on an assembly line, the simple fact that you probably can 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.

CHAKRABARTI: And finally, Paul, I've just got to ask you about the legacy of the Highland Park Assembly Plant itself, where all of this began a century ago. What's happened to Highland Park?

EISENSTEIN: Well, Highland Park itself is a sad case. It's an enclave, an independent city surrounded by the city of Detroit. It used to be nothing but cow pastures when Henry Ford moved there. And unfortunately, it is one of the most rundown areas of the Motor City.

It was abandoned by Ford. It was abandoned by Chrysler, which had its headquarters just a few blocks away. The assembly plant, oddly enough, is a case of it being too expensive to tear it down. So a good portion of the old Highland Park plant still survives.

There's been a fundraising effort recently to buy much of the old plant that survives, to hopefully restore it. There's some talk about turning it into a museum to celebrate not just the auto industry, but the assembly line itself.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Paul Eisenstein is publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com, an automotive news website, speaking to us today about the centennial of the assembly line. Paul, thank you so much.

EISENSTEIN: My pleasure to be with you.

CHAKRABARTI: The news is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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