Henry Ford Scales Up the World

9-20-2013 Henry Ford Scales Up the World

A Historical Reflection In Commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the Invention of the ‘Assembly Line’

by Douglas Elbinger, Energy Policy Analyst, GreenLancer.com
 
“Innovation can come in a variety of forms, but it’s particularly powerful when technological innovation and procedural innovation are combined. In 1913 in Highland Park, Michigan – a city within the city of Detroit – Henry Ford debuted the first moving assembly line.  The automobile was, in its own right, one of the most miraculous technological advancements of the 20th century, but without parallel innovation in the production process, the automobile never would have transformed the US and global economy the way that it did. One hundred years later, we’re again seeing rapid technological advancements such as solar photovoltaic panels. However, it is the emergence of a parallel innovation in the production process, a virtual assembly line, which will bring solar to market in a way that will transform America’s clean energy portfolio.”
 — Cory Connally, Research Associate at Environmental Law Institute, 2013

 Few historical sites in the world can claim to have influenced the course of the 20th century as much as the Ford Piquette Plant, on the corner of Piquette and Beaubien in the center of Detroit. From a historical perspective, Detroit, by it’s very location was destined to be the vortex for political and economic revolution. When it was founded in 1701, by the French explorer, Antoine de La Mothe de Cadillac, he situated Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit, the beginnings of modern Detroit, at the narrowest point between lakes Erie and St Clair, so that he could fire a cannon shot across the Detroit River. In the geo-politics of North America at the time, whoever controlled the straits of Detroit would control the Great Lakes.

 Flash forward two hundred years to 1913, and find that Detroit has transformed from a frontier outpost to thriving metropolis at the beginning of the second industrial revolution (for the first and third revolutions see: The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World by Jeremy Rifkin (Jan 8, 2013) ).

In the two hundred years that elapsed, the French have lost Detroit to the British, who in turn lost Detroit to the Americans. We also find Henry Ford working in his garage trying to connect a primitive gasoline engine to a carriage, creating an automobile that would change the face of word history thereafter. After a series of false starts, Ford conceived and first produced the Model T at his second factory, the three story brick Piquette Plant. The Model-T, known for its durability and relatively easier maintenance, the car would become the most popular vehicle in the world.

Henry Ford the visionary inventor

Henry Ford the visionary inventor

The Highland Park Plant

Prior to 1913, Ford and virtually every other automaker assembled whole cars at a station with a team of workers working together to complete a single example, usually from start to finish. Like other companies, Ford had made numerous refinements to the process, achieving impressive production totals at the Piquette Avenue plant where the Model T was born in October 1908.

The Piquette Plant in Detroit was only a few years old when Henry Ford and his staff realized the need for a much larger facility that could handle increasing output and take better advantage of the lessons learned from experiments to promote greater efficiency. The company found a suitable location for the new plant a few miles north of the Piquette Plant in the village of Highland Park.  For the monumental task of creating a state-of-the-art plant unequaled anywhere in the world, Ford chose architect Albert Kahn whose designs for the Packard Motor Car Company appeared to fit the approach the automaker wanted to apply toward the construction of this complex. Beginning in 1908, among the first buildings to be constructed included the Power House and Administration Building which fronted Woodward Avenue, as well as, a foundry, machine shop, and main assembly building made of reinforced concrete that would draw international attention.  Unlike other factories of its day, the main assembly building had no interior dividing walls, was well-ventilated, and boasted 50,000 square feet of glass that allowed an abundance of sunlight. All of the buildings were installed with a sprinkler system activated if the temperature reached 160 degrees. When the Highland Park Plant officially opened on January 1, 1910 it was the largest auto plant in the world and contained Michigan’s largest building under one roof.

 

The Moving Assembly Line

Led by Ford manager Charles E. Sorensen, the creation of a continuously moving assembly line for mass production was the result of, at least six years of experiments in assembly and production techniques at the Piquette and Highland Park Plants. Ford and his managers were aware of the latest in line production techniques and time-motion studies. Initially, the company practiced stationary assembly techniques. The unit sat in one place, while skilled mechanics built the car with parts brought to them by helpers and stock runners. Under this system at Ford’s Mack Avenue factory, at best the company could only produce fifteen cars in a single day.

Ford’s transition to moving assembly lines began in April 1913 with the integrated (and complex) flywheel/magneto. With each worker assigned to complete a few specific tasks rather than build the entire unit, Ford reduced magneto assembly time from about 15 minutes to 5, and the required workforce decreased from 29 to 14. Photo courtesy of the Ford Motor Copany archives.

Ford’s transition to moving assembly lines began in April 1913 with the integrated (and complex) flywheel/magneto.
With each worker assigned to complete a few specific tasks rather than build the entire unit, Ford reduced magneto
assembly time from about 15 minutes to 5, and the required workforce decreased from 29 to 14. Photo courtesy of the
Ford Motor Copany archives.

This process required many hours of skilled labor, which kept production costs high. Consequently, these expenses had to be passed on to the consumer. In 1905, the price of Ford’s Model C car – $850 – was beyond the capacity of the average citizen whose annual earnings were only half that amount. At the Piquette Plant, Sorensen and another manager, Charles Lewis, spent many hours rearranging the workspace so that men, machine and materials were better placed in the sequence of operations. This led to the development of a system of moveable benches to take the chassis from one workstation to another. Sorensen continued the experiments at the Highland Park Plant, whose pragmatic design better afforded opportunities to realize the goals of those trials. Here, he and company members studied current practices, then manipulated conditions to better enhance the successful application of the principles of mass production:

1. Accuracy – standardization and interchangeability of parts (machined at close tolerances)

2. Continuity – the moving assembly line, to which moving component lines are geared

3. Division of labor – the subdivision of work into smaller routines to be performed by a team of workers, machines, or a combination of both

4. Speed – the carefully timed orchestration of manufacture, material handling and assembly.

 

The flywheel magneto assembly – a component of the ignition system, became the first department to test the new system. Under the former practice, one skilled worker could assemble 35 to 40 magnetos in a nine-hour day. Managers and engineers subdivided the task into twenty-nine separate operations so that no one person would perform more than one or two tasks in constructing the part. Components for the magneto were placed on elevated ways or rails that carried them past successive groups of workmen who affixed various parts to the moving unit. Through trial and error, the timing of the component feed was adjusted for the most efficient result. Eventually, productivity not only quadrupled, but the system allowed a greater consistency in the product.

Ford Highland Park Assembly Plant in the 1920's. Photo courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

Ford Highland Park Assembly Plant in the 1920’s. Photo courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

After some tinkering with the line rate and other factors, Sorensen and his cohorts achieved results that were probably startling even to them. Starting with 29 workers performing 29 different tasks, the experiment reduced assembly time by about seven minutes per unit. And with more refinements, Sorensen was able to reduce the magneto-line workforce to 14 and cut assembly time to five minutes.  The system was next applied to the assembly of the motor, transmission and other units with great success. As a result, the output of the sub-assembly lines was so great it overwhelmed operation at the final assembly line where it still took 12 hours to complete one car. By the summer of 1914, the time to complete a new car had been reduced from 12 hours to 93 minutes. The rest is history.

Greenlancer co-founder and CEO, Michael Sharber stands in front of the historic Ford Piquette Plant, only a few blocks from where Michael and his team of Greenlancer re-invent the assembly line in the cloud.

Greenlancer co-founder and CEO, Michael Sharber stands in front of the historic Ford Piquette Plant,  only a few blocks from where Michael and his team of Greenlancers re-invent the assembly line in the cloud.

Flash forward another hundred years to the summer of 2013, and only a few blocks from the original Ford Piquette Plant, the assembly line has transformed again, from the mechanical to the virtual. GreenLancer.com, a Detroit-based solar energy technology company,  announced the launch of its comprehensive  virtual “Assembly Line” for quicker, more accurate solar engineering project documents.  Project developers can now order the entire spectrum of engineering documents needed to take a project from feasibility through construction via GreenLancer.com’s proprietary e-commerce platform. To lean more about virtual assembly line visit www.greenlancer.com

 

 

 

 

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