September 26, 2012

Technology: America's Assembly Line

After the American Century

The assembly line will be 100 years old in 2013. The precise date will probably forever remain unknown, as the assembly line was not a self-conscious project. The managers at the Ford Motor Company did not explicitly set out to create it. Rather, a group of talented men, some machinists and some formally educated, some inexperienced enough to have new ideas and others seasoned veterans of many different industries, came together in a new industry that was growing explosively. Consumer demand for cars outstripped traditional methods of production. Cars were built up from the floor, much as wagons had been, and a factory with 1000 workers could scarcely produce 1000 cars in a year.

Ford had decided to focus on making an inexpensive car for as many customers as possible, so the old artisan methods clearly would not do. The company built a new factory at Highland Park in 1910, one that was designed to move parts right inside on railway cars and hoist them to wherever they were needed using overhead electric cranes. The new factory was not built specifically for the purpose of inventing the assembly line, but its management was quite open to experimentation. They began to subdivide work, and they discovered all sorts of small savings by adjusting the lighting, the height of tables, the positions of things, and anything else they could think of. 

The first work process that looked something like an assembly line put together just one part, the flywheel magneto, and this experiment apparently began about April 1, 2013. Apparently. no one used the phrase "assembly line" in that month. But one experiment led to another, and by the fall of that year the managers were trying out car assembly with a moving line of sorts. It was still experimental, but by then the goal had emerged. 

Since 1913 assembly lines have spread to all parts of the world, and made possible a consumer revolution. Not only could cars be made for less, but almost anything else as well, from toasters to refrigerators to lawnmowers to clothing to children's toys.

This was not a simple story of progress, however, for the assembly line could also be used to strip workers of their previous authority on the shop floor, to push workers to labor so hard it damaged their bodies and numbed their minds, and to reduce the number of workers needed, creating both unemployment and abundance at the same time. The assembly line was, paradoxically, celebrated by Lenin's Soviet Union, by Nazi Germany, and by the United States during the Cold War. More recently, it has been the central means of production in emerging economies, notably in China. 

For decades some engineers dreamed of automation, of robot assembly lines, of production without workers, which, depending on your scenario, led to leisure for all, or enormous profits for a few, or some combination of both,  In Japan after World War II, however, further development of Ford's original ideas led to lean production, which doubled productivity without recourse to robots or lots of automatic equipment. Then it was the Americans turn to play catch up, a task that became more complicated as computers also became central parts of production.

The social history of the assembly line is examined further in:

David E. Nye, America's Assembly Line   MIT Press
0262018713  978-0262018715
Kindle edition available.

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