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Dr James Wilson, Senior Lecturer in Management at the University of Glasgow

We speak to the University of Glasgow's Dr. James Wilson about how Henry Ford and his Model T created the assembly line and started the move towards automated production processes.

In the early days of the automotive industry, the chassis stood still while individual parts were brought to it, resulting in a process that was inefficient and time consuming. As demand increased and Ford was forced to find cheaper and quicker ways of producing his Model T, a rethink proved necessary. From this, the assembly line was born and the control-obsessed industrialist increasingly found ways to make high-quality products without the need for highly skilled workers. Dr James Wilson, a senior lecturer in management at the University of Glasgow spoke to us about the circumstances that brought about Ford’s innovation, its impact on his industry, and how Henry Ford would view the automated production processes he unwittingly set in motion.

Dr James Wilson, Senior Lecturer in Management at the University of Glasgow

Why do you think Henry Ford set out to become a pioneer in automotive innovation with his introduction of the assembly line?

Ford had no intention to develop advanced manufacturing systems – he just wanted to make cars, and he saw a market for a cheap, reliable car for farmers. The Model T was introduced in 1908 and Ford made them until 1913 without the line. During that time, they made innumerable improvements to the product, production processes and their organisation and management. In my paper (Wilson & McKinlay, 2010), we show labour productivity increased significantly until 1912, when it plateaued. At that point, Ford started looking for other ways to increase output. The moving assembly line was the result. It was introduced to a component assembly (the flywheel magneto) as a pilot, and when that was successful, it was then spread throughout the factory's other assembly processes until all were implemented in late 1914.

Prior to the introduction of the assembly line in 1913, what was the production process in the factory?

Before the final assembly line was introduced, Ford used stationary assembly ‘stands’ on which a bare chassis was mounted. The final car was built up as parts were brought to it and fixed into place by teams of workers. This was slow, with a lot of movement of materials and men, and it took several hundred hours (initially) to make a car. The accounting data does not allow us to distinguish between production and assembly processes. Ford made most components in-house, the major bought-in component was the car body.

The Model T was the only car Ford made from mid-1909 through 1927, when production stopped. Ford believed that he should be able to make them forever, because it was so well suited to its purpose and well accepted. But, by the early 1920s, consumer tastes had evolved and the Model T was no longer as appealing. Price became its prime attraction. Ford the used the line as a strategic competitive system, driving the line ever faster to increase productivity.

While this was happening in America, did factories in the UK have similar ambitions? How quickly did UK factories adapt to the assembly line?

These developments coincided with the First World War and British factories were keenly interested in increasing productivity, so this – along with F.W. Taylor’s Scientific Management – was widely discussed and implemented to some extent. The chief difficulties arose from the these methods’ suitability to British consumer products and their compatibility with British worker’s norms. Craftsmanship and quality were more important for many British consumer products; cars were a luxury (or not often sold to the working class) product. The general consensus is that American methods were slowly introduced to British factories during the 1920s and later, despite severe union hostility and resistance.

The first British production line dates from 1802, with the Portsmouth Block Mills set up by Samuel Bentham, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Henry Maudslay. This facility produced over 120,000 Blocks (pulleys) annually for the Royal Navy. Although Blocks are relatively simple, producing them via manual methods was slow and exacting. During the Napoleonic Wars, the supply was inelastic and could not increase. Block prices were high and delivery limited. The Navy sought to relieve that by introducing mechanised production processes and steam power.

Brunel independently had ideas for mechanising the production process and he approached the Navy’s suppliers with his proposals, but they considered their own production methods to be the best and improving them to be impossible. Brunel then approached the Navy directly and met Samuel Bentham (brother of the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham), who was then engaged in developing better management for the Navy, and they worked together on developing the factory to implement these ideas.

The Mill was a popular phenomenon with hundreds of visitors, including royalty and Admiral Nelson, before Trafalgar. Mechanisation was seen as an approach to making products more cheaply and more consistently.



On average, how long would it take to produce a Model T from start to finish before the assembly line was introduced?

It initially took about 400 man-hours to make a single Model T; but Ford introduced a number of improvements from 1909-1912 that increased productivity, reducing the labour needed to roughly 150 man-hours per car. After the development of the moving assembly line, the labour used was reduced to about 75 man-hours per car.

Of particular note, though, is Ford’s reorganisation of their factory in January 1921. That eliminated 25 per cent of their workforce and drove the line faster than previously to increase output per employee by 23 per cent. From 1921 through to the end of production in 1927, Ford increased the line speed regularly until only about 50 man-hours were needed per car.

What essential components, both large and small, were needed to create the Model T and other models that Ford produced at the time?

The simple answer is that every part was needed for the line to run effectively – shortages of anything would cause problems and potentially halt production. Ford emphasised their logistics management, noting that they had monitors positioned to tell them if any trains were running late with deliveries. They had an in-house production capability of making virtually every component they used. They sought to control the whole supply chain in a vertically integrated operation; they even owned a railroad and a shipping company to help manage their logistics, and owned mines and rubber plantations to try to control some raw material sources. In the early years of the line’s operations, Ford bought in car bodies from an outsourced specialist supplier. He felt the need for control very strongly and tried to manage his factory as fully as possible. Labour control was very strong, with significant systemic control (the line’s requirements for task performance on-time and to standard) over worker’s activities. Ford was strongly anti-union and also resisted having any outside investors or other external financial influence.

It was not the availability of components or suppliers that was critical to Ford’s development of the assembly line, but more fundamental engineering and management principles and practices. Interchangeability was critical and it was not until the early 1900s that manufacturers could achieve it consistently.

It is not well known, but Ford was first associated with Cadillac and developed its first cars. His perfectionist approach was frustrating for his investors and they pushed him out, with Leland chosen as his replacement. The first Cadillacs were very similar to the first Fords produced, and both emphasised their quality.



In your opinion, if Henry Ford was alive today, what would he think about the latest technologies in mass production and manufacturing, particularly automation and robotics?

I feel that Ford (and his predecessors like Brunel, Bentham and Evans) would all look very positively on these developments. Their goals were to produce the best products possible as effectively as possible. Ford was known for developing single-purpose machines dedicated to doing a specific task, so-called ‘farmer’ machines, with the idea that an untrained person (i.e., a ‘farmer’) could come into the factory and be set to work on these with minimal training and little supervision. Eliminating workers through robotics would resolve the problems all these manufacturers had with unavailable, or poorly skilled workers. One criticism of Ford was that their approach was dehumanising and turned people into just another cog in a factory machine. Industrial robots would seem the culmination of this historic process.

One point that seems particularly relevant is the development of communications protocols between systems. Ford’s factory employed thousands of workers, many of whom were immigrants and/or illiterate and unable to communicate well in English. With deskilling and job design that created specialised tasks Ford eliminated many of the communications required – jobs no longer required a lot of discussion and could be easily learned, and the workflows easily managed. Arnold & Faurote (1914) note that 70 languages were spoken by Ford’s employees and that standardised forms allowed critical information to be readily communicated throughout the factory.

What do you think the future of manufacturing looks like and what major changes do you envision?

I feel that the increasing ability of consumers to define their requirements directly with producers will become increasingly important, with production schedules dictated by customers. The difficulties this may create – in managing the supporting processes and supplies of constituent assemblies and components – will be the greatest challenge.

Image source: Posted by Dan Treace on the Model T Ford club of america website.


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