100 years down the auto assembly line

New York TimesNovember 2, 2013 



— The moving assembly line was the simplest of inventions, born of necessity to meet the exploding demand for automobiles in America in the early 20th century.

And while it turned 100 years old this month, “the line” remains as integral to the progress of the auto industry as it was in the days of Henry Ford.

The assembly line is a constantly evolving industrial ballet of workers and robots building cars. And automakers like the Ford Motor Co. are finding that building multiple models on the same line is a huge key to success in the intensely competitive global marketplace.

Updating the assembly line is a big part of the “One Ford” corporate strategy that has helped the nation’s second-biggest automaker lead the recent recovery of the U.S. auto industry.

“There are probably very few inventions in the auto industry that started 100 years ago and are still here today,” said John Fleming, Ford’s executive vice president for global manufacturing.

So much has changed in the industry since Henry Ford installed the first, rudimentary assembly line at his company’s Model T plant in Highland Park, Mich., in October 1913.

But automakers around the world use essentially the same basic method of mass production, turning a bare automotive chassis at one end of the line into a finished car at the other.

In the beginning, the line was a critical step toward ensuring that the same processes were repeated over and over to manufacture one specific model of the highest quality. Now, the modern assembly line produces a wide variety of vehicles that are virtually custom-built at a moment’s notice for customers in far-flung markets.

“You are always asking how you best organize the work inside a vehicle plant to be most efficient,” Fleming said.

To achieve efficiency, Ford has dropped extraneous divisions (Mercury), sold off luxury brands (Volvo, Jaguar and Land Rover), and streamlined its product lineup. By doing so, it can concentrate on building cars like the Fiesta subcompact and Focus sedan at factories in North America, South America, Asia and Europe for customers in each of those regions.

But those best-selling models could not succeed without assembly plants that use the same techniques, whether in the United States, Germany, China or elsewhere.

Ford is in the midst of one of its largest expansion programs, with factories going up in China, India, Russia and Thailand. The foundation of the plan is its continuous effort to innovate and improve the humble assembly line and replicate it in diverse, growing markets.

The company’s advanced manufacturing technologies include lower-cost, faster stamping processes that reduce the time it takes to produce sheet-metal parts. It also uses three-dimensional drawings to create prototypes of components that can be tested in days rather than months.

On the line, new robotic systems used in the final assembly process can detect even the tiniest specks of dirt and prevent imperfections in paint that mar the surface of a sparkling new car.

The advances are a testament to the automaker’s relentless drive to manufacture better cars – and a reminder that one of Henry Ford’s favorite sayings still applies in today’s world. “Nothing is particularly hard,” he said, “if you divide it into small jobs.”

The first moving assembly line was a primitive – and ingenious – way to speed up production and cut costs.

Ford’s engineers created a system in the Highland Park plant in which a chassis was pulled by a winch and a rope stretched across the factory floor. Stationed along the 150-foot-long line were about 140 workers, each of whom added particular parts to the vehicle.

Competition drives innovation

The assembly line became a working laboratory that Ford engineers constantly tinkered with. Other auto companies followed suit and adapted their own versions of the line. Soon, competition became the driving force to improve production.

Flash forward to today, inside Ford’s 5-million-square-foot, ultramodern Michigan Assembly Plant in the city of Wayne. Nearly 5,000 hourly workers staff the plant in three shifts. The assembly line is 3 miles long and features more than 900 robots. In the past four years, Ford has spent more than $500 million to refurbish the plant, which dates from 1957.

What makes the plant unusual is the variety of vehicles it makes. Its primary product is the Focus, one of the best-selling cars in the world. But the factory does not just build Focuses with traditional gasoline engines. It can also build them in electric and plug-in hybrid versions.

Recently, as Focuses and C-Maxes hummed smoothly along the line behind him, Fleming, the Ford executive, said that the company was intent on making all its plants as flexible as Michigan Assembly.

“Within the next five years, our plants globally will be able to produce an average of four different models or derivatives of a model,” he said.

Ford is also reducing the number of basic vehicle platforms that are the underpinnings of its models. Today, Ford builds its product lineup off 15 platforms – the structural frames of vehicles – of different sizes. By 2017, the automaker projects, nearly all of its vehicles will be made off nine core platforms.

Other auto companies are moving in the same direction. Toyota and Volkswagen are among the leaders in deriving multiple models off each of their individual platforms.

Common platforms key

Common platforms are integral to the modern assembly line. A basic chassis can travel down the line and be equipped with many of the same mechanical parts. But the vehicle’s body and interior, and its overall package, can differ, depending on consumer demand.

“What is facing the customer needs to be different, and what is not facing the customer can be the same,” said Dan Ammann, GM’s chief financial officer.

The changes on the assembly line are not limited to technology. Suppliers are increasingly moving inside plants and stocking parts and materials closer to the workers.

Today’s car buyers expect new features in their vehicles: navigation devices, Internet connections, collision-avoidance systems, hybrid power from a combination of gasoline engines and batteries.

Auto executives and engineers are constantly reacting to those demands and developing new technology to satisfy them. Yet it still comes down to the assembly line to integrate the latest features seamlessly into the final product.

Ford’s first assembly line was a marvel of efficiency for its time. But it could not remain stagnant and serve the growing needs of its customers.

“By the end of the Model T, Ford had become too inflexible,” said Casey, the Ford historian. “There wasn’t enough differentiation. People wanted something more than the basic model.”

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