Motoring History: Henry Ford – Maker of Men (Part Two)

Ford1919Henry Ford and his car company hit a home run with the Model T – and he knew it  (see Part One of this series).  On January 1, 1910 he opened his new factory in Highland Park with the intention of producing one thousand Model T’s a day.  His whole business model centered around making an inexpensive, affordable product for the masses.  Machine parts could be made quickly but assembling cars was another story.  Again, Henry Ford began to tinker.

One member of his team proposed an idea based on a conveyor system used in meat-packing plants.  As the animal carcass moved along the conveyor throughout the plant, meat cutters cut pieces from the animal.  They thought a sort of reverse conveyor process would work – put the machine on a conveyor and move it past people to place things on it.  To test the theory his team tried it out in the flywheel magneto department.  Instead of one person building one coil at a time, individual tasks were broken down – each person along the conveyor had a specific task to perform.  Previously it had taken twenty minutes to assemble and with the new system it would drop to just over thirteen minutes.

It worked for magnetos, so why not transmissions, axles, engines, you name it?  When they put the entire project of assembling a car through the conveyor system, productivity soared.  Previously it had taken twelve hours and thirteen minutes to assemble one car – afterwards the time required plummeted to one hour and thirty-three minutes – a vast improvement.  Ford hadn’t invented the assembly line but his first automobile assembly line, when perfected, was a stunning success, making the company’s goal of one thousand cars a day possible.

Historian Douglass Brinkley remarked, “Efficiency becomes a religion to Ford.  Time is a product; you get the maximum you can out of every hour.”  Efficient though it was, it was monotonous and exhausting work.  Some workers only lasted a few days.  To deal with the attrition rate, the company’s managers estimated that every time they needed to add one hundred new employees they would need to hire almost one thousand.

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