Henry Ford’s assembly line celebrates 109 years

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This past Thursday marked 109 years since Henry Ford’s assembly line debuted on the factory floor of its Highland Park, Michigan, assembly plant.

Following years of experimentation, the invention changed the manufacturing and supply chain industries as well as the auto industry forever. The assembly line’s first automobile product was the Ford Model T. 

Ford, the iconic auto mogul, worked for years on speeding up the manufacturing process. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, he took inspiration from crude versions of an assembly line commonly seen in Midwest meat-processing plants in the 19th century. These early production processes used overhead trolleys to carry carcasses from worker to worker, where each would focus on one task. 

Ford’s 1913 professional assembly line allowed automobile parts to travel to the worker instead of the other way around. According to Ford, the invention reduced chassis production time from 12 hours and 8 minutes to 1 hour and 33 minutes. A rope pulled the vehicle down the factory floor, where it was built step by step.

After the assembly line’s implementation, the Model T’s production time totaled 90 minutes, according to Ford Motor Co.

Ford’s Model T became an important part of widespread automobile availability thanks to the assembly line. (Photo: Associated Press)

Reducing the production time not only helped the manufacturing side in the auto industry, but Britannica says it cut down on the cost of the vehicles, making them available and affordable for a much broader market. The price of the Model T price fell from a debut of $850 to $360 and sales tripled within a year. 

Adaption of the assembly line helped the automotive industry become a part of middle-class America and a staple in factories across the nation. Competitors and parts manufacturers had to adopt the system and Ford’s techniques to compete with it. 

A change in labor

While Ford was reaping the benefits of an efficient factory, workers on the floor did not experience the same perks. Skilled laborers were no longer needed, and cheaper unskilled workers took over. Because the assembly line was made possible because of machinery, that dictated the production speed. Managers would heighten these machines’ speed, forcing workers to keep up. Employees also became bored with the monotony of continually completing the same task over and over again. 

Because of the growing contention within Ford’s workforce, the assembly line is also responsible for another company invention. 

As employees started to leave, according to Ford Motor Co., Henry Ford began to offer what he called the “$5 workday.” The program was a profit-sharing idea that doubled workers’ daily pay to $5, though many believed such a perk would bankrupt the company. Fortunately for Ford and his workers, that was not the case. 

“We believe in making 25,000 men prosperous and contented rather than follow the plan of making a few slave drivers in our establishment multimillionaires,” said Henry Ford. 

The $5 workday also reduced the hours workers had to cover but allowed for an increase in the number of employees and an additional third shift. Soon, Ford production plants became a 24-hour operation. 

The assembly line became integral to manufacturing, but the Model T did not see the same long-lasting career. 

As automobiles became more accessible to most Americans, consumers looked for more bells and whistles for a lower price. This prompted the retirement of the Model T, according to History.com, to make room for more modern designs. 

However, the Model T will always be viewed as an important part of American history for both the automobile itself and the supply chain innovation it brought about. 

FreightWaves Classics articles look at various aspects of the transportation industry’s history. If there are topics that you think would be of interest, please send them to fwclassics@freightwaves.com

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Editor: Brielle Jaekel