December 03, 2021

Henry Ford’s Model T | How it changed the industrial sector

 The Ford  Model T was not the first car. Not even close. Depending on how you define what a car is, that honor was achieved hundred years before Henry Ford was even born in 1769 when the French engineer Nicholas Joseph Cugnot created the first steam-powered vehicle design to travel on rail. The owner of the first true automobile goes to Karl Benz founder of Mercedes-Benz in 1885 with a single Piston 2-stroke gasoline-powered vehicle. The art of the automobile was well underdeveloped before Henry Ford hit the scene.

No Ford did not invent the automobile he invented something much more profound. He created modern society. He instituted the modern assembly. That is a massive part but bear with me. His manufacturing techniques did not just revolutionize how he design and build everything. Making complicated machinery like tractors and cars affordable for the masses. His manufacturing techniques entirely changed the trajectories of millions of people's careers.

At the turn of 18-century craft, manufacturing was the high status defined by a highly-skilled workforce. People wishing to pursue a career in Automotive manufacturing entered this career and progressed through an apprenticeship. Picking up a used variety of skills gradually learning the tricks of the trade and being masters of their craft. Many would go on to run their private machine shops. There were fewer employees and more contractors. 

In those times a machine like an automobile was not produced completely in-house. Parts would come from smaller machine shops from all across the city. They used general-purpose tools and machines to create the path needed which would send to the final assembler. The parts would vary massively from batch to batch, requiring a scaled assembling team.

Did Ford's mass manufacturing Affect small machine shop owners?

Workers were required to learn the function of the part they were working on and skillfully manage the parts together into the final vehicle. There was neither mass manufacturing of the complex machines. Each vehicle was one of a kind, commissioned by whoever was prosperous enough to buy it. At this production volume, no company could create a monopoly. There were several small crafts shops across Western Europe and North America but many would soon occur run out of business by Henry Ford before they had the chance to adopt his mass manufacturing technique. 

Only the most high-grade craft manufacturers sustained. Companies like Aston, Martin, and Bentley succeeded by concentrating on the ultra-wealthy that could have to afford this one of the vehicles using skillful craftsmen to develop unique and posh cars, but even they would soon have to join the inclination to survive. All eventually acquired by these mass production powerhouses were no longer able to keep up with the cost of innovation and manufacturing required to keep pace in the automotive industry. At the high point of Model T’s success in 1923, Ford was manufacturing 2.1 million Model T’s a year, a figure that would only be matched by a single-vehicle Model again with a VW Beetle. Many people were shocked by Henry Ford’s success down to its inflexibility in design. The famous quote of Henry Ford is, “you can have any color as long as it is black”. This was true for many years but perhaps not for the reason you think. You see Henry Ford was captivated by manufacturing speeds. The painting process he used, allowed the paint to dry speedily and it was only available in black at the time. He saved time wheresoever possible to achieve that impressive milestone of 2.1 million Model T's a year.

The Model-T was not a coincidence, it was the top of over 20 design iterations over 5 years. Each one tweaked the design and manufacturing procedure to cut seconds off the total process, the innovations resumed through the almost 20 years of production that would see a total of 15 Million Model T manufactured. Ford worked all his life to learn the skills he needed to achieve this goal.

Beginning production for Model T in 1908, the average task cycle of the Model T lasted 514 minutes. The task cycle time is the time before a single task is repeated. So the mediocre worker did not recur the task for 8 and half hours. For Ford, this was essentially how fast a single production line was producing vehicles as an assembly line cannot start a new vehicle until another has existed at the other end. So he set to work on reducing that cycle time and by the year 1913, he managed to bring it down by just 2.3 minutes. For a product this complex consists of hundreds of parts with hundreds of processes that is astounding and were something, no other company had ever accomplished.

How on earth did Ford achieve quantum Leap Forward in manufacturing speed?

Let's first start with innovations that Ford was not responsible for that allowed him to begin this journey. 

One of the causes, that highly skilled workers were essential to this industry before Ford came along was the high variability between parts. In engineering, there is a technical term for it called “Tolerancing”.

For Example, A Design Engineer is needed to specify the tolerances, and need for the specific part feature. Say a shaft is needed to fit a precise hole we need to define how much the machinist is permitted to differ from the listed dimension. If we have a 20 mm hole pared with a 19mm shaft and we specify that both can deviate from the dimension by ± 0.5 mm. Even at the extreme ends of both where both are 19.5 mm wide, they will still fit with some force. This may not be acceptable depending on the application and higher tolerancing may be needed which generally means an increase in cost. 

Engineers regularly screw up with these things even today but during Ford’s days, they consistently succeeded in intolerance that tight and mass manufacturing would have been used task and was generally something saved for military applications and not for low-cost consumer products. This was largely due to the mass manufacturing techniques of the day, specifically heat treatment methods. As we know metals are needed to be heated and cooled in specific ways to strengthen or Harden them, this makes the metal much harder to cut and shape, the metal was often cut first and heated and treated after. This heating and cooling induce the metal to deform due to thermal expansion which can then throw the original piece out of tolerance. This is called warping and it made it nigh on impossible to get a consistent final product.

Many blame Ford for revolutionaries arising the standardization of parts but in truth, “he was simply at the right place at the right time to benefit from Technologies that facilitated him”. New methods for cutting and Stamping pre-hardened metal provided Ford to eliminate much of this variability due to warping. Advancements in Precision measurements and manufacturing allowed Ford to be confident. Parts would be interchangeable and in turn, this allowed him to defend his vehicles in a way that reduced costs. This was the rise of destruction for the craft manufacturing industry and the beginning of a movement that would change the face of modern society.

Competitors of Ford working manually to make an engine block

While his competitors were casting each cylinder of the engine block individually and bolting them together due to the hassle of casting a single part with multiple holes that needed to line up precisely. Forecasting a single complex engine block drastically reduced the time required to manufacture and assemble it. This of course headed to incredibly expensive dedicated machinery needed to manufacture a single piece of the vehicle. In the world of craft manufacturing, a skilled worker could use a general-purpose tool and skillfully use it to produce the final product. 

Inside the world of mass manufacturing, this was not acceptable. It took too long and required skilled workers who were too difficult to replace. For example engine blocks consist of the upper and lower part that needs to be made correctly to maintain a seal for engine compression. Ford’s competitors like Cadillac practiced using a single flexible milling machine to create a flush surface on both the upper and lower half of the engine block. Engine blocks and heads were overloaded and milled slowly and precisely one at a time.

Ford used a milling machine to make engine heads!

Ford instead created a dedicated machine to mill engine blocks and engine heads separately. 15 and 30 at a time respectively. The worker simply snapped the unmilled pieces into a tray while the previous lot was built and then pushed the tray into the place when the time came. A worker could be trained in 5 minutes to do this task. They didn't need to speak the same language as the person next to them they didn't need to think about anything else. Just supply the machine. These people had a single purpose this of course resulted in versatility in design. The cost of starting an entirely new Model vehicle was drastically increased. This is why even today that car brand tends to iterate on old design rather than introduce entirely new models, it's simply too expensive and time-consuming to retrofit entire production lines. When Ford eventually decided to completely redesign the Model T and produce Model A, these machines were thrown out but had achieved his goal cycle time was lowering and there was still scope to improve. Ford managed to half-cycle time from 2.3 minutes to 1.2 minutes with his next innovation.

How was the moving assembly line introduced?

When production first started on the Model T employees worked from stationary work stands if needed a part or tool they would get up and get it themselves. Ford soon recognized the waste and introduced dedicated stock suppliers whose only job was to ensure that other workers had the parts they needed to keep production running at a constant pace. Where possible these employees were replaced with automated supply lines.

This idea grew and involved in the introduction of Ford’s greatest manufacturing innovation “the moving assembly line”, a manufacturing technique still in use today even for huge machines like planes. This method introduces a sense of urgency to the factory floor and even looming deadlines to complete your work before the plane reaches the next production step. If there is a critical problem the entire production line will completely stop until expect.

From where did Ford develop the Assembly Line Idea?

Ford was not the first to introduce such an idea. They had been used in the simple production lines for the butchering of carcasses and food preparation before but never forever, but never for anything this complex and Ford applied it as a science. Used his engineering skills to help find pioneer a new branch of engineering “Industrial engineering” a branch of engineering mostly concerned with optimizing the Logistics of manufacturing.

Idea Migration overseas

The moving assembly line drives all workers to work at the same pace, more lasting workers cant produce items faster than they are needed and more inactive workers can’t slack off. Ford’s innovation launched the Ford motor company to International success but that dominance could not last forever. Companies came from all over the world to observe Ford factories. They wondered how the factory itself was like a finely tuned machine each part feeding into the other. They took their lessons home and by 1955 mass manufacturing had propagated around the world. And forthwith companies outside the US were not just overtaking up the big three of Detroit. Ford, General Motors, and Cadillac surpassed their capabilities far better. 

The most reputable Toyota in the post-world war in Japan led the change in manufacturing through a new manufacturing philosophy “Lean manufacturing”. That would lead to Detroit's eventual demise. Detroit would soon become a phantom town and just as these companies viewed their Machines as disposable they viewed their workers as disposable. Dropping them the moment demand tanked. 

This problem has only gotten worse. Zero Hour contracts and strict control of unions are standard. Ford paid his worker incredibly well for the time but that meant little when the demand dropped and these workers at few Transferable skills to gain new employment. For better or worse Ford’s innovations completely changed the job market for billions of people.

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