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Modern car assembly line.

An assembly line is a manufacturing process in which parts (usually interchangeable parts) are added to a product in a sequential manner using optimally planned logistics to create a finished product much faster than with handcrafting-type methods. The assembly line developed by Ford Motor Company between 1908 and 1915 made assembly lines famous in the following decade through the social ramifications of mass production, such as the affordability of the Ford Model T and the introduction of high wages for Ford workers. However, the various preconditions for the development at Ford stretched far back into the 19th century, from the gradual realization of the dream of interchangeability, to the concept of reinventing workflow and job descriptions using analytical methods. Ford was the first company to build large factories around the concept. Mass production via assembly lines is widely considered to be the catalyst which initiated the modern consumer culture by making possible low unit-cost for manufactured goods. It is often said that Ford's production system was ingenious because it turned Ford's own workers into new customers. Put another way, Ford innovated its way to a lower price point and by doing so turned a huge potential market into a reality. Not only did this mean that Ford enjoyed much larger demand, but the resulting larger demand also allowed further economies of scale to be exploited, further depressing unit price, which tapped yet another portion of the demand curve. This bootstrapping quality of growth made Ford famous and set an example for other industries.


Consider the assembly of a car: assume that certain steps in the assembly line are to install the engine, install the hood, and install the wheels (in that order, with arbitrary interstitial steps); only one of these steps can be done at a time. In traditional production, only one car would be assembled at a time. If engine installation takes 20 minutes, hood installation takes 5 minutes, and wheel installation takes 10 minutes, then a car can be produced every 35 minutes. In an assembly line, car assembly is split between several stations, all working simultaneously. When one station is finished with a car, it passes it on to the next. By having three stations, a total of three different cars can be operated on at the same time, each one at a different stage of its assembly. After finishing its work on the first car, the engine installation crew can begin working on the second car. While the engine installation crew works on the second car, the first car can be moved to the hood station and fitted with a hood, then to the wheels station and be fitted with wheels. After the engine has been installed on the second car, the second car moves to the hood assembly. At the same time, the third car moves to the engine assembly. When the third car’s engine has been mounted, it then can be moved to the hood station; meanwhile, subsequent cars (if any) can be moved to the engine installation station. Assuming no loss of time when moving a car from one station to another, the longest stage on the assembly line determines the throughput (20 minutes for the engine installation) so a car can be produced every 20 minutes.


1913 Ford Model T assembly line.

Overview: a culmination of many efforts

The assembly line concept was not "invented" at one time by one person. It has been independently redeveloped throughout history based on logic. Its exponentially larger development at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th occurred among various people over decades, as other aspects of technology allowed.

The development of toolpath control via jigs, fixtures, and machine tools (such as the screw-cutting lathe and milling machine) during the 19th century provided the prerequisites for the modern assembly line by making interchangeable parts a practical reality. Before the 20th century, most manufactured products were made individually by hand. A single craftsman or team of craftsmen would create each part of a product. They would use their skills and tools such as files and knives to create the individual parts. They would then assemble them into the final product, making cut-and-try changes in the parts until they fit and could work together (the English System).

The assembly line evolved from these artisanal shops as division of labor and specialization took place. Electrification saw further advances in elementary assembly line production in the early 20th century. As electricity was increasingly used in factories as a more reliable, smoother and more precise form of power than previously available, it provided the means for the evolution of production through the automation of the assembly line. With the creation of unit drive motors, factories could be reorganized and the modern assembly line took shape with the optimal ordering and location of different parts of the production process. Large efficiency gains from assembly line production could then be realized.

The transition from prototypical to the modern assembly line thus took place as creativity and logic took advantage of the opportunities that technological changes presented. The prototypical forms of assembly lines in various industries, are outlined below.

The Terracotta Army (circa 215 BC)

The Terracotta Armymarker commissioned by the first Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi is a collection of about 8000 life-sized clay soldiers and horses buried with the emperor. The figures had their separate body parts manufactured by different workshops that were later assembled to completion. Notably, each workshop inscribed its name on the part they manufactured to add traceability for quality construction.

Venetian Arsenal (1500s)

At the peak of its efficiency in the early 16th century, the Venetian Arsenalmarker employed some 16,000 people who apparently were able to produce nearly one ship each day, and could fit out, arm, and provision a newly-built galley with standardized parts on an assembly-line basis not seen again until the Industrial Revolution.

Block production at Portsmouth: Brunel, Maudslay, et al. (1800-1820s)

Probably the first linear and continuous assembly line of post-Renaissance times were the Portsmouth Block Mills created in 1801 by Marc Isambard Brunel (father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel), with the help of Henry Maudslay and others, for the production of blocks for the Royal Navy. This assembly line was so successful it remained in use until the 1960s, with the workshop still visible at HM Dockyardmarker in Portsmouthmarker, and still containing some of the original machinery.

Eli Whitney (1780s-1820s)

Eli Whitney is sometimes credited with developing the armory system of manufacturing in 1801, using the ideas of division of labor, engineering tolerance, and interchangeable parts to create assemblies from parts in a repeatable manner. But Whitney's contribution was mostly as a popularizer rather than "the inventor" of repeatability. He was probably inspired by several others (including Honoré Blanc), or at least by the contemporary zeitgeist that was building around such ideas. Thomas Jefferson had tried to bring a French mechanic (who was almost certainly Blanc) and his methods to America in 1785, but the project never went anywhere. A few years later, Whitney and his American contemporaries succeeded in introducing the relevant concepts (interchangeable parts, toolpath control via machine tools and jigs, transfer of skill to the equipment, allowing use of semi-skilled or unskilled machine operators) to American firearm manufacture.

Meatpacking industry (1860s)

The meatpacking industry of Chicago is believed to be one of the first industrial assembly lines (or dis-assembly lines) to be utilized in the United States starting in 1867. Workers would stand at fixed stations and a pulley system would bring the meat to each worker and they would complete one task. Henry Ford and others have written about the influence of this slaughterhouse practice on the later developments at Ford Motor Company (see below at Ford Motor Company ).

Firearms, clocks, et al. (1860s-1890s)

The Industrial Revolution in Western Europe and North America, but perhaps most especially in Great Britainmarker and New Englandmarker, led to a proliferation of manufacturing and invention. Many industries, notably textiles, firearms, clocks and watches, buttons, horse-drawn vehicles, railroad cars and locomotives, sewing machines, and bicycles, saw expeditious improvement in materials handling, machining, and assembly during the 19th century, although modern concepts such as industrial engineering and logistics had not yet been named.

Ransom E. Olds (1890s-1900s)

Ransom Olds patented the assembly line concept, which he put to work in his Olds Motor Vehicle Company factory in 1901, becoming the first company in America to mass-produce automobiles. This development is often overshadowed by the independent redevelopment of assembly-line work at Ford Motor Company a few years later (see below), which introduced the ramifications of the method to a wider audience.

Ford Motor Company (1908-1915)

The assembly line developed for the Ford Model T had immense influence on the world. Despite oversimplistic attempts to attribute it to one man or another, it was in fact a composite development based on logic that took 7 years and plenty of intelligent men. The principal leaders are discussed below.

The basic kernel of an assembly line concept was introduced to Ford Motor Company by William "Pa" Klann upon his return from visiting a Chicago slaughterhouse and viewing what was referred to as the "disassembly line", where animals were butchered as they moved along a conveyor. The efficiency of one person removing the same piece over and over caught his attention. He reported the idea to Peter E. Martin, soon to be head of Ford production, who was doubtful at the time but encouraged him to proceed. Others at Ford have claimed to have put the idea forth to Henry Ford, but Pa Klann's slaughterhouse revelation is well documented in the archives at the Henry Ford Museum and elsewhere, making him an important contributor to the modern automated assembly line concept. The process was an evolution by trial and error of a team consisting primarily of Peter E. Martin, the factory superintendent; Charles E. Sorensen, Martin's assistant; C. Harold Wills, draftsman and toolmaker; Clarence W. Avery; and Charles Ebender. Some of the groundwork for such development had recently been laid by the intelligent layout of machine tool placement that Walter Flanders had been doing at Ford up to 1908.

In 1922 Ford (via his ghostwriter Crowther) said of his 1913 assembly line, "I believe that this was the first moving line ever installed. The idea came in a general way from the overhead trolley that the Chicago packers use in dressing beef."

Charles E. Sorensen, in his 1956 memoir My Forty Years with Ford, presented a different version of development that was not so much about individual “inventors” as a gradual, logical development of industrial engineering:

"What was worked out at Ford was the practice of moving the work from one worker to another until it became a complete unit, then arranging the flow of these units at the right time and the right place to a moving final assembly line from which came a finished product. Regardless of earlier uses of some of these principles, the direct line of succession of mass production and its intensification into automation stems directly from what we worked out at Ford Motor Company between 1908 and 1913. Henry Ford is generally regarded as the father of mass production. He was not. He was the sponsor of it."

As a result of these developments in method, Ford's cars came off the line in three minute intervals. This was much faster than previous methods, increasing production by eight to one (requiring 12.5 man-hours before, 1 hour 33 minutes after), while using less manpower. It was so successful, paint became a bottleneck. Only japan black would dry fast enough, forcing the company to drop the variety of colors available before 1914, until fast-drying Duco lacquer was developed in 1926. In 1914, an assembly line worker could buy a Model T with four months' pay.

Ford's complex safety procedures—especially assigning each worker to a specific location instead of allowing them to roam about—dramatically reduced the rate of injury. The combination of high wages and high efficiency is called "Fordism," and was copied by most major industries. The efficiency gains from the assembly line also coincided with the take-off of the United States. The assembly line forced workers to work at a certain pace with very repetitive motions which led to more output per worker while other countries were using less productive methods.

Ford at one point considered suing other car companies because they used the assembly line in their production, but decided against, realizing it was essential to creation and expansion of the industry as a whole.

In the automotive industry, its success was dominating, and quickly spread worldwide. Ford France and Ford Britain in 1911, Ford Denmark 1923, Ford Germany 1925; in 1921, Citroen was the first native European manufacturer to adopt it. Soon, companies had to have assembly lines, or risk going broke by not being able to compete; by 1930, 250 companies which did not had disappeared.

Sociological problems

Sociological work has explored the social alienation and boredom that many workers feel because of the repetition of doing the same specialized task all day long. Because workers have to stand in the same place for hours and repeat the same motion hundreds of times per day, repetitive stress injuries are a possible pathology of occupational safety. Industrial noise also proved dangerous. When it was not too high, workers were often prohibited from talking. Charles Piaget, a skilled worker at the LIP factory, recalled that beside being prohibited from speaking, the semi-skilled workers had only 25 centimeters in which to move. Industrial ergonomics later tried to minimize physical trauma.

See also


  1. .
  2. Georgano 1985.
  4. , p. 81.
  5. .
  6. Alienation and Freedom: The Factory Worker and His Industry, Robert Blauner, in Technology and Culture, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Summer, 1965), pp. 518-519
  7. Leçons d'autogestion (Autogestion Lessons), interview with Charles Piaget


  • Various republications, including ISBN 9781406500189. Original is public domain in U.S.
  • .
  • . Various republications, including ISBN 9780814332795.
  • We-Min Chow (1990). Assembly Line Design.

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