The basic kernel of a moving assembly line concept was introduced to Ford Motor Company by William “Pa” Klann upon his return from visiting Swift & Company’s slaughterhouse in Chicago and viewing what was referred to as the “disassembly line”, where animals were butchered as they moved along a conveyor. The efficiency of one person removing the same piece over and over caught his attention.
Pa Klann reported his idea to Peter E. Martin, soon to be the head of Ford production.
Martin was doubtful at the time but encouraged Henry Ford to proceed.
Others at Ford Motor Company have claimed to have put the idea forth to Henry Ford, but Pa Klann’s slaughterhouse revelation is well documented in the archives at the Henry Ford Museum and elsewhere, making Klann an important contributor to the modern automated assembly line concept.
The process then evolved by trial and error with a team consisting primarily of Peter E. Martin, the factory superintendent; Charles E. Sorensen, Martin’s assistant; C. Harold Wills, draftsman and toolmaker; Clarence W. Avery; Charles Ebender; and József Galamb.
Some of the groundwork for such an innovative development had been laid out by the intelligent machine tool placement that Walter Flanders had been doing at the Ford Motor Company up to 1908.
The assembly line developed for the Ford Model T began operation on December 1, 1913.
The assembly line was designed for the sequential organization of workers, tools or machines, and parts.
The motion of workers is minimized to the extent possible.
Each worker typically performs one simple operation.
According to Henry Ford:
The principles of his assembly line are these:
- Place the tools and the men in the sequence of the operation so that each component part shall travel the least possible distance while in the process of finishing.
- Use work slides or some other form of carrier so that when a workman completes his operation, he drops the part always in the same place—which place must always be the most convenient place to his hand—and if possible have gravity carry the part to the next workman for his operation.
- Use sliding assembling lines by which the parts to be assembled are delivered at convenient distances.
Charles E. Sorensen, in his 1956 memoir My Forty Years with Ford, presented a different version of development that was not so much about individual “inventors” as a gradual, logical development of industrial engineering:
“What was worked out at Ford was the practice of moving the work from one worker to another until it became a complete unit, then arranging the flow of these units at the right time and the right place to a moving final assembly line from which came a finished product. Regardless of earlier uses of some of these principles, the direct line of succession of mass production and its intensification into automation stems directly from what we worked out at Ford Motor Company between 1908 and 1913. Henry Ford is generally regarded as the father of mass production. He was not. He was the sponsor of it.”
As a result of this assembly line method, Ford’s Model T cars came off the line in three minute intervals. This was much faster than previous methods, increasing production by eight to one (requiring 12.5 man-hours before, 1 hour 33 minutes after), while using less manpower.
It was so successful that paint became a bottleneck.
Only japan black paint would dry fast enough, forcing the company to drop the variety of colors available before 1914.
The assembly line technique became an integral part of the diffusion of the automobile into American society. Decreased costs of production allowed the cost of the Model T to drop within the budget of the American middle class.
In 1908, the price of a Model T was around $825, and by 1912 it had dropped to around $575.
This price reduction is comparable to a drop from $15,000 to $10,000 in dollar terms from the year 2000.
In 1914, an assembly line worker could buy a Model T with four months’ pay.
It obviously had an immense influence on the world.
Despite over-simplistic attempts to attribute the concept to one man or another, it was in fact a composite development based on logic that took some 7 years to develop.
Now WE know em