Assembly Lines: History & Types

Instructor: Paul Mckinney

Paul has been in higher education for 17 years. He has a master's degree and is earning his PhD in Community College Leadership.

The assembly line is a manufacturing process that has become a key component of the industrial age. On an assembly line, parts are added to a product in a sequential manner to create a finished product.

History of the Assembly Line

An assembly line is a form of mass production where components are added in a specific, efficient order to create a finished product at the end of a line. The assembly line was first mechanized in the U.S. in 1797 by Eli Whitney, who also patented a type of cotton gin. Whitney began using the assembly line to manufacture muskets that had interchangeable parts. Over a 2-year period, Eli's company built 10,000 muskets rifles for the U.S. government.

The Ford Model-T Assembly Line

Henry Ford of the Ford Motor company streamlined and improved the use of the assembly line at the beginning of the 20th century. He wanted everyone in America to own a Model T, and he knew the only way for that to happen was to build them in large numbers.

At the Highland Park, Michigan automobile factory, a motor and rope pulled the car being built past workers on the factory floor. As the car passed, workers would assemble specific parts on the car. This cut the man-hours required to complete one 'Model T' from 12-1/2 to six hours.

Within a year, further assembly line improvements reduced the time required to 93 man-minutes. The staggering increase in productivity caused by Ford's use of the moving assembly line allowed him to drastically reduce the cost of the Model T, thereby accomplishing his dream of making the car affordable to ordinary consumers.

Advantages of the Assembly Line

There are many different advantages to using an assembly line. Below are a few of the top reasons many manufacturing companies use assembly production today:

  • Increased production and better uniformity: The assembly line is optimized for speed and efficiency, and tasks are limited. Therefore, most lines can turn out products much faster than traditional methods of manufacturing.
  • Reduced cost: The quicker and easier it is to assemble a product, the cheaper its overall cost will become. In the example of the Model T listed above, the average cost to assemble one car in 1909 was $850. With the addition of the assembly line, the cost dropped to $440 by 1915.
  • Use of interchangeable parts: Parts used on an assembly line are made to specifications that ensure they are so nearly identical that they will fit into any assembly of the same type. A good example of an interchangeable part was the tire used on the model T. All the tires were identical and, therefore, easy to make and put on the car during assembly. Interchangeable parts also minimize the time and skill required of the person doing the assembly or repair.

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