Ford Celebrates The 100th Anniversary Of The Moving Assembly Line

A Model T sits on the floor of the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant where the Ford Focus and C-Max are produced (Erin Marquis)

Ford Motor Co. celebrated the 100th anniversary of the moving assembly line this week at its Wayne Assembly plant by setting new goals for global manufacturing, and promising the next few years will mark the automakers’ largest manufacturing expansion in 50 years.

By 2017, Ford says it will be able to produce four different vehicles at each of its assembly plants around the world. That’s a huge advancement over the single-car production line Ford is often credited for perfecting, which used a rope to move car parts throughout the plant.

“Henry Ford’s core principles of quality parts, workflow, division of labor and efficiency still resonate today,” said John Fleming, Ford executive vice president of global manufacturing, in a press release. “Building on that tradition, we’re accelerating our efforts to standardize production, make factories more flexible and introduce advanced technologies to efficiently build the best vehicles possible at the best value for our customers no matter where they live.”

When the first Model T was produced in 1908 at the Piquette Plant in Detroit and later at the Highland Park Assembly plant, the cars were still being built one at a time on stands at workstations. On October 7, 1913, after months of trial and error, a rope and winch system was set up along the length of the Ford plant in Highland Park, Mich., to convey the Model Ts through the factory from bare chassis to final production. By bringing the work to his workers, Ford’s production time for his affordable Model T fell from 12 hours to three. Ford opened his plant to other manufacturers and soon the world was building everything from canned food to refrigerators the Henry Ford way.

“This event today is more than a parochial celebration” said Bob Casey, former curator of transportation at The Henry Ford, and author of “The Model T: A Centennial History.” “The development of the assembly line was an earth shaking event. Our world is still being shaken by what happened in Highland Park.”

The assembly line led directly to another Ford signature innovation: the living wage. Just a few months after implementation of the assembly line workers began quitting in droves. Turnover at the Highland Park plant was an unsustainable 380 percent. In response, by January of 1914, Ford shook the world again by offering his workers five dollars a day for an eight-hour workday. In a matter of months the company perfected the means to mass-produce goods and a large pool of well-paid, unskilled middle class workers to consume them.

Technological advancements over the decades on the assembly line have reduced the need for physical labor. As man-hours have been cut so too have middle class jobs. Nowhere has this pain been felt more acutely than near Ford’s headquarters in southeast Michigan. In places where line jobs once guaranteed a high school graduate a living wage, unemployment and poverty are rampant. Currently the production process is 95 to 99 percent automated. Those job losses may have been staunched, for now.

“If you look around today at assembly plants, I would say the mixture between automation and people is about right,” Fleming said. Advancements in technology and research will allow Ford to put more valuable content into their products while improving workflow, he said.

The assembly line process hasn’t stopped changing since that first rope was stretched across the Highland Park plant floor. Technology’s quick pace of innovation prompted Ford to invest in emerging technologies which some day may aid the production process.

“We continue to work with all of our stakeholders to improve the quality, speed and materials associated with 3D printing, which one day could enable us to print parts on actual assembly lines,” said Paul Mascarenas, chief technical officer and vice president of Ford Research and Innovation.

According to Mascarenas, Ford is currently investing in one of the largest rapid prototyping efforts in the world. Virtual reality has been used to improve the process for over 16 years now. Today, Ford is experimenting with ways to use virtual reality to explore the whole building process and eliminate costly experimental builds of a vehicle from beginning to end before it ever hits plant production. With 114 product launches in the next five years, Ford will have to move with the pace of the times to continue to be a leading manufacture.

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