The Future of the Assembly Line

The assembly line was invented 100 years ago. It’s time to invent the disassembly line

Loading the podcast player...

Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

The world’s first assembly line was developed at the Ford Motor Co. in 1913, making this its centenary year. We think of it as the moving production line—it’s what we see Charlie Chaplin racing against in the movie Modern Times and Lucy and Ethel in the I Love Lucy episode in a chocolate factory. But according to a new book, that’s just one of five key developments, and in some ways it’s the least important of them.

And anyway, the assembly line of today is quite different from that of the golden age of American automobile manufacturing—and, the author argues, it’s overdue for yet another radical makeover.

My guest today is David Nye, a professor of American history at the University of Southern Denmark. He’s the author of the 1992 book Electrifying America, the 2010 book When the Lights Went Out, and America’s Assembly Line, published just this February by MIT Press. He joins us by phone.

David Nye: Well, thank you very much. I’m glad to be here.

Steven Cherry: David, I want to get to the other four elements of the assembly line, but first, you note that the 1913 date is a bit arbitrary. Tell us what happened at the Ford Motor Co. in the period from 1908 to 1914.

David Nye: Well, they were in a position where the orders for their Model T outran their ability to produce them in the way that they were used to doing it. And with this pressure and demand, they started to experiment: How can we produce different parts of the car more efficiently?

So they didn’t start out with the idea of an assembly line, but they started out more with the notion, “Well, maybe a certain part that has a lot of little subparts to it,” in this case it was the fly-wheel magneto. They said, “Maybe we could make that more efficiently.” And they had a new place to do it in. Ford had built a new factory, the Highland Park factory, which had some advantages over the factories they’d had before. The biggest thing was it had very wide open spaces. You could move the machines around easily. And they were electric machines: There were motors in the machines, rather than overhead drive, which meant that you didn’t have the problem of these machines being tethered, in a sense, by a belt running up from the machines to overhead drive-shaft. Now, that might not sound very important, but it’s quite important, because it means you can reorganize the work any way you’d like if you just, more or less, just know the restrictions.

Steven Cherry: A lot of this wasn’t new. Breaking a process down into subtasks goes back to before Adam Smith, and in the 1800s, slaughterhouses moved the work, that is, the animal carcasses, down from worker to worker.

David Nye: Yeah, that’s right. The subdivision of labor is even mentioned in Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. He talks about making something as simple as a pin, and how that can be broken into parts, and how much more efficient, if you have a number of people, each doing just one task over and over, and getting better at it.

So in a sense, it was known to people for a long time, but Ford just carried it to a much greater level. There are five practices that are all needed before you have an assembly line. The first is the subdivision of labor, which I already mentioned. The second is interchangeable parts, where every part can, without any filing or additional manipulation, be moved from any one product to another. The single-function machines used to make the parts and assemble the cars. In other words, you have machines that are dedicated to doing just one task, and you don’t have to step in and change the machine’s setup in any way when the next object comes, because it’s just always the same object, always doing exactly the same thing with that object, whether it’s grinding it or milling it, or whether it’s a lathe, or whatever it happens to be.

The next thing is you have to have the sequential order of the machines. That means the machines have got to be set up in the proper order for manufacturing. Now, that might seem obvious to us today, but it wasn’t for the longest time because of those overhead belts, which forced machines to be pretty much in a straight line, and it tended to put all the machines of a similar type together, rather than saying, “Well, to make this particular part, we need first a grinder, and then we need a lathe, and then we need a standing…”—various machines would be needed. You need to put them in whatever order you need, with the electric motor driving them, which is, in a sense, a sixth thing.

Steven Cherry: Now, the gains were unbelievable. You write that in 1909, assembling a Model T took 12 hours, and a mere five years later, it took an hour and a half.

David Nye: Imagine the many thousands of parts going into a car being distributed all around the factory floor. In the old days, people would assemble a car in one place, and they’d go around looking for these parts that they needed. You know, you’d be walking around, bumping into each other, and “Oh, where are the fenders now?” and this sort of thing, whereas with the assembly line, you don’t have to look. The parts are all there. You only put one thing in over and over. You become very good at that one thing. So the gains are largely accounted for by this reorganization of the work.

Steven Cherry: Now, Henry Ford himself doesn’t deserve all the credit for the assembly line, but he did a couple of key things: He hired the right people and allowed them to innovate. In fact, a lot of the knowledge came from other industries, right? A sewing machine manufacturer, canning, you mention flour mills, just to name three.

David Nye: That’s right. They came from many different places. And I think the lesson managers today should think about, it wasn’t like some executive thought up the idea of an assembly line and then told some people to go do it. It was more like they got some skilled people together and said, “We have a problem here. We need to produce more efficiently. See what you can do.” You know, just turn ’em loose. You know, give them some space in the factory. Give them the freedom to innovate, rather than think that you must have the whole idea worked out in advance. So we tend today to think, “Well, the innovations are thought up first, and then they’re just worked out.” But the word assembly line doesn’t even appear in these discussions until after it’s already a fact.

Steven Cherry: Henry Ford also did some other things that forced his factories to keep innovating and become more efficient. Tell us [about] what you call in the book “the insatiable demand” for the Model T and how he created it.

David Nye: Yeah, well, what he did was he kept lowering the price. He standardized the car, which was not the usual way at that time. People would offer many different models, which meant it was a lot of different workers that were needed to assemble each different model, was not sufficient.

So the idea for the Model T was that we have one car, that they all be the same. Of course, popularly, people have the idea that they were all black. Actually, some years they weren’t black. Some years they were maybe very dark blue or something, but the point was that they were all the same for long stretches of time. They did have modifications. There were small improvements. But the basic model of the Model T stayed the same.

And actually, it was a huge advantage. And Ford was not at all happy with the idea that he had to have a model change. He thought that was quite wasteful. You had to stop everything in the factory and install all this new equipment and then train the workers, in a sense again, to make the new car. So he was against that for a long time, just make the same basic car for as long as you can. And he made the Model T for about, oh, almost 20 years.

Steven Cherry: Now, Ford’s assembly line was widely studied, but it wasn’t adopted in the same form at other places.

David Nye: That’s right. It was interesting: The people from Europe would come, the people from France and England and Germany, particularly, from their factories, mostly automobile producers, and they would study what they were doing. They were fascinated, take photographs and notes, and Ford was very open that they could come and look.

But the problem was that they didn’t have a big enough market. In other words, if you’re going to make one car and make your money by producing a huge number of them, there was a small profit on each of a large number of vehicles. That wouldn’t work in most of the European markets. There was just more of a class-differentiated market—a lot of different income levels wanting different types of cars. So the big advantage of mass production couldn’t be realized because of these small, and I should say, national markets that they were brought up against. If there was a French car that was sold in Germany or Britain, there would be a tariff, no common market in those days.

Steven Cherry: In Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World, the name Ford is uttered like an epithet, like taking the Lord’s name in vain, and in the middle of the century, people talked about “Fordism.” What was it?

David Nye: Yeah, that’s an interesting term. It’s people who are Marxists, or labor historians tend to use this term, Fordism, as a kind of stage in the history of capitalism. So they see something coming before it, typically Taylorism, and Fordism, and then sometimes they talk about post-Fordism. So it’s an interesting term but not used at the time, not used when the thing first appears.

Steven Cherry: You mentioned Taylorism, and this was sort of the great alternative to Ford’s strategy. Taylorism also tried to increase production and also to increase wages indirectly. Tell us what it was.

David Nye: Yeah, they’re quite an interesting contrast, because Taylor’s idea was that you would train the men to do a particular job in a very particular way, and you would pay him an incentive wage. The idea is that you have a certain number you have to make in a day, but for every additional one, you get paid a little more. That wouldn’t work on the assembly line, because the pace of the work is determined by the pace of the line. You’re not going to have one guy doing, you know, say, a third more than the guy next to him. They’re all going to be doing the same number of units, because the same number of cars is going by each person. So the idea of incentive wages goes out.

Another thing was that Taylor was still focused on the idea of manual labor. He didn’t really eliminate things like shovels. He’d say, “Let’s make a shovel which has got the perfect design to shovel the thing that you’re using.” So let’s say you’re shoveling sawdust, which is heavy compared to feathers, so you have two different shovels. And you very carefully design a feather shovel or a sand shovel or a sawdust shovel. But Ford was “Get rid of the shovel altogether. Why should anybody be shoveling? We don’t need that.” So there’s quite a contrast in the whole approach.

You know, Taylor was in Detroit at the same time the assembly line was being set up, but he was employed by the Packard Motor [Car] Co. to introduce his system. And he did improve productivity at the Packard factory, but they were still making a very small number of cars. It was still kind of an artisan production. It wasn’t at all what the Ford workers were doing. So there’s less than one Packard car being made per every employee on the floor when Taylor was done. Whereas the Ford Co., they were making 20 cars for every worker. So it’s just a whole different level of productivity when it comes to the Ford system.

Steven Cherry: And so the Ford assembly line system really swept through America, at least, into, it seems, almost every other industry, and things stayed that way almost into the ’70s and the big revolution in Japan. So now let’s talk about “lean production.” What is it?

David Nye: Basically, the lean production was developed by the Japanese, again, without knowing, just like the people of Detroit didn’t know that they were going to invent the assembly line. The assembly line happens under a period of great pressure from sales. And the same thing [was] happening in Japan in the 1950s and early ’60s. Their automobile market was very small after World War II, and there’s a huge demand for cars that develops, and they don’t have the kind of money they have in Detroit to invest in a lot of machine tools and very specialized tools to organize what I call the “classic assembly line.”

So they focus instead and say, “Well, how can we organize the workers better? How can we use what we can afford from the classic Ford systems but focus on the labor more?” Whereas the Ford system standard, the workers are kind of almost robotic. You know, they’ll just do the same task over and over. But the Japanese said, “No, maybe we can get a lot more productivity out of our workers if we give them a little more power, a little more control, have them work in teams, and they gradually develop this whole ethic and system,” because it’s not just a system where you can mechanically apply it, there’s a whole system of thinking about making things that are better and working better together.

So that the same inventiveness was there in the American system, but there was much more top-down control, so it was much more of management versus the worker, and the worker figuring out a scheme to reduce the number of minutes that they actually had to spend working on the floor. Whereas in Japan, they would work with management. There was much more of a feedback loop, where new ideas were shared and became the basis of innovations, and it’s all based on savings. Tiny savings here and there, more efficiencies, eliminating waste.

One of the Japanese innovations was realizing that workers occasionally stop the assembly line because they saw that something was wrong, that certain parts were being installed that didn’t quite fit right, or there was something that was amiss or awry, and rather than just let it go forward, which would often happen in Detroit, they would stop the line and fix the problem.

And the advantage was not only more-satisfied customers, but the other advantage is that you don’t have a rework, which is fairly common in American factories, especially back in the ’50s and ’60s, was a lot of little mistakes would be caught, and they’d have to go back and redo the job.

You can see why workers might be happy to have reworks, you know, more hours to get paid. In Japan, they would get rid of rework as much as possible. They would get rid of any kind of wasteful activity. And the result was that lean production. It sounds quite astounding, but it doubled productivity! The number of cars being made per worker, gradually, over the period of 15 to 20 years, doubled, without Americans quite realizing that the Japanese had done it. It was something that was just happening step by step.

Steven Cherry: Yet there’s an irony here, right? Before World War II, European manufacturers couldn’t bring themselves to embrace Ford’s methods, and they fell behind, thereby, and in the 1970s and 1980s, American manufacturers were slow to embrace lean production, and they fell behind.

David Nye: Exactly. It’s very interesting, because you see the same thing happening that’s happened before, is they set it up. People from Peugeot and Citroën and, you know, British car companies like Aston, coming to, looking at the Ford factories. Now, the Ford managers start to make these trips to Japan to study how they, what are the Japanese doing over there? They aren’t using the word “lean” production yet, but they see that there’s something different about Japanese production systems.

Meanwhile, in Detroit, especially General Motors has a very tough time making the switch. They try to just cherry-pick some parts of the lean system, “Okay, we’ll just take this element or that element.” This doesn’t work. It’s a total system, really. Ford is a little more efficient about making the shift; it takes them about 10 years when they really get serious about it.

So by about 1992, ’93, Ford is getting to the point where you could say they’re pretty much the same levels of efficiency that you would find at the Japanese transplant companies. But it’s amazing to see that the same general process is at work, that is, the Americans have just as much trouble learning the lean system as the Europeans had learning the classic assembly line, say, in 1915.

Steven Cherry: Your book sets the assembly line within the broader culture. Your examples in the book range from the poetry of William Carlos Williams to synchronized swimming to Levittown, but the most striking, though, might be George Antheil and Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique.

David Nye: Yes, the Ballet Mécanique is very interesting, and, by the way, if you go on YouTube, you can see, you can hear the piece, and you can even see what people have done with it, what images they have put with it. But that’s an attempt to make a new kind of music based on, you might say, industrial noises, and based on the movement of a clock. There’s a clock time very much in the tick-tock, pendulum movement. And then the crashing of machines slamming together, various industrial objects with one another. It’s actually better seen than me trying to describe it. This was a famous piece of music written back in the ’20s.

Steven Cherry: I wonder if there’s a sinister side to the assembly line as well. In the book you mention the Nazis, and their methods of mass production are easily seen in the systematic ways they exterminated Jews and other classes of people they considered inferior, but do you think the assembly line mind-set also made it easier to treat people as objects in the first place?

David Nye: Well, you can make that argument. I’m not sure that that is the key thing to look at. What I find interesting is that there was a tendency in the Second World War for Americans to see the assembly line as being very American, you know, that they would say, “This is the arsenal of democracy in Detroit, and they’re going to produce all the weapons and all the airplanes, everything we need, so we’ll win the war based on this productivity.”

So it tends to. . .you see where, from the Nazi perspective, you might say the assembly line is an ideal technology for exterminating people, but in the U.S. they’re embracing it for a whole nother set of reasons. In Russia they also embraced it. So it tends to be embraced for, you know, with different cultural values attached in different countries, each one seeing it as the embodiment of what they would like the future to hold, you know, whether it’s the pure race or the democratization of goods or the winning of the war. So there’s various things attached to it, but it’s a slippery thing. At first you might say, well, it’s a very American design, but it seems to be in these different iterations embraced in different countries. The Japanese, of course, consider lean production to be theirs.

Steven Cherry: Even before the assembly line, there was a difference between the skilled and unskilled workers, but the assembly line widened that gap, and now it’s becoming a chasm, where soon maybe only skilled workers will have work at all, and the rest gets automated away.

David Nye: Yeah, this is where the things that people worried about very early on but didn’t seem to be happening. Even up until the 1970s there are fears of automation, but when you actually look at an automobile factory, 99 percent of the jobs were still human beings doing it. Now, a lot of the jobs were, shall we say, semiskilled. They weren’t unskilled, but you didn’t have to have a high-skilled person do it either. And to some extent you learned it on the job. You could learn the basics of it fairly quickly, and then you’d become better at it as you worked.

But you’re right: What’s happened in the last generation is that the number of these semiskilled jobs has been on the very steep decline. If they’re that repetitive, then they tend to be automated or let robots do them. And so then you have a small number of workers, a much smaller number than used to be in the auto industry, doing more-skilled, high-end kinds of jobs that they require more training.

So there’s a group who are well paid, have good jobs in the auto industry, but there was a time when it was the great place for an average Joe, or an average Jill, I suppose, an average person without any great education or a lot of skills, to go and get a job that had high pay and good benefits. And you could buy a house and a car and have a good middle class life, which is now disappearing both in the sense that the jobs aren’t so numerous, there aren’t so many jobs in the auto industry and its suppliers, but there also aren’t as many kinds of jobs, the kinds of jobs where the person who maybe has a high school education and no more, those jobs are quickly disappearing.

Steven Cherry: The book concludes by summarizing how the assembly line involved rethinking not just the factory but supplier relationships, patterns of consumption, distribution, marketing. And then you ask, How sustainable is the assembly line culture? And you say the alternative, though, would require a rethinking of pretty much everything. You call it the disassembly line. What is it?

David Nye: Yeah, the idea of a disassembly line, which has been developed to some extent in Europe, is that you make cars in such a way that they’re designed so that also, if you take them apart, all the parts are recycled. And what’s important here is to recycle them in such a way that the metals and the plastics and the other materials are not degraded. That is to say, that if you just took a car and ground it up or melted all the metal parts together, you wouldn’t have a very high grade of any kind of metal. You’d have this sort of mongrel thing that has some copper and some steel and various other things.

So you don’t want that. You want the same high-quality metal, refined again out of these parts, so that you can endlessly recycle them, like in this idea of this kind of industrial metabolism, almost, where all the materials, instead of being junked, are recycled. So there’s a concept that’s called “from cradle to cradle” rather than “cradle to grave,” so that the product has become endlessly recyclable. And that means that the automobile industry is less environmentally dangerous if it doesn’t create big landfills full of rusting parts and disposed automobiles. In Europe they’ve got a little further with this than they have in the United States. They’ve made more requirements that cars be properly disassembled, but there’s still quite a way to go.

In a sense, the problem is the assembly line is a big mechanism to produce lots of stuff , but then what do you do with that at the end of the life of that object? You have to find a way to make it possible, that these objects are not just waste. And there’s a small, you might say, movement, on to try and figure out how to do this. But it is, in a sense, a whole new way of thinking about what the assembly line should be able to do, to, in a sense, go back to the ultimate origins, the slaughterhouse assembly lines that took things apart. And in that sense you might want to be able to disassemble, well it’s not just cars, it could be the iPhone or any other high-tech object which we don’t want to just keep chucking these things out. We want to know how to recycle or reuse.

Steven Cherry: And you mentioned how early on with Ford, basically the assembly line was not possible until they had a new factory with a new architecture to accommodate the new flow of the work, and that would have to happen here as well, right? We’d have to completely redesign the assembly line to include disassembly.

David Nye: You’d have to think about disassembly when you figure out how to assemble so that it would be a reasonable task, you might say. It’s not something they worry about when they design cars to be assembled, pretty much. They don’t have to worry about how hard or easy it is to take apart again. Obviously you can take them apart, but then in a sense you’ll also need another factory to take them apart after having one to put them together.

So, yeah, there’s some costs here. But it’s that sort of thing we have to rethink. We have to realize the assembly line is, from an ecological point of view, potentially destructive, using a huge amount of resources. And for the longest time, from the early 20th century to pretty recently, people didn’t worry about that very much. They just focused on the productivity. But that, of course, is flying in the face of all sorts of environmental issues that we now confront.

Steven Cherry: Well, David, we’ve barely touched on the book’s riches. Far too little was said about manufacturing and its impact on our culture, and it’s rarely said in such an engaging way, so thanks for writing it, and thanks for joining us today.

David Nye: Oh, you’re welcome.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with historian David Nye, author of the new book America’s Assembly Line, about the past, present, and future of the assembly line. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

Photos: MIT Press

NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

This interview was recorded Wednesday, 1 May 2013.
Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

Read more “Techwise Conversations,” find us in iTunes, or follow us on Twitter.