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by Franz Schneider

It’s the 100th Anniversary of the moving assembly line. Although meat packing and some automotive attempts of lesser scale predated Ford’s Highland Park line, it is Ford who receives credit for the moving assembly line (as outlined in the article from Hemming’s Daily). However, it was not the moving assembly line per se that was the breakthrough, but rather dividing an assembly task into sub assembly tasks was the point of demarcation.

The change from whole piece assembly to piece part manufacturing accrued significant time savings. It was good for Henry Ford when production times per unit went from 20 minutes to 5 minutes, but was it an improvement for the employee? With whole piece manufacturing the operator had pride of workmanship, variety in his tasks, mental engagement in his tasks and the ability to self-pace work. With piece part manufacturing, products were made quicker.

The US economy rode the shoulders of the resulting manufacturing efficiency to become the number one economic force in the world for the next 75 years; and in the process created the highest standard of living of any population in history. In addition, time variance in assembly and error in assembly were reduced,  allowing for a predictable process which is essential to efficient manufacturing flow (pull versus push).  The operator was also freed from the responsibility for product quality because the routinized tasks allowed for little individual contribution or problem solving.

I remember  a series of conversations from many many decades ago talking to line employees and their contention that mental disengagement was a good thing. The conversations went something like this, “The company paid for my body, not for my mind. I can do this job without thinking and consequently I spend my days working out the plans for a new birdhouse I am building with my children.” Substitute children’s homework, cake recipe, or new forks for my motorcycle; and you pretty much have the gist of what the majority of operators were saying.  The “deskilling” of work versus work “enlargement” have been ideas that  have ebbed and waned like the tide for the last century.  Good or bad?  We will explore that question in the next posting.