Mass production ‘Old style’ and ‘New style’

Mass production is the assembly of varied products in large numbers or small out of uniform and standardized parts.

In the manufacturing industry mass production is today the prevailing system. It is, and with good reason, considered to be the typical system of an industrial society though process production may soon become a strong contender.

This old- style mass production is, however, based on a misunderstanding. It is the essence of genuine mass production that it can create a greater diversity of products than any method ever designed by man. It does not rest on uniform products. It rests on uniform parts which can then be mass-assembled into a large variety of different products.

The model of mass production is therefore not the old Ford assembly line. It is rather the farm equipment manufacturer in Southern California who designs and makes special cultivating machines for large scale farming on irrigated land. Every one of his designs is unique. He makes for instance, a machine that performs, with various attachments, all operations needed in large scale cucumber growing from preparing the hills in the spring, to harvesting cucumbers at the right stage of their growth, to picking them. He rarely makes more than one of each machine at a time. Yet every one of his more than seven hundred different machines is made up entirely of mass-produced, uniform, standardized parts, which someone in the American economy turns out by the thousands. His biggest job is not to solve the problem of designing a machine that will identify cucumbers of the right ripeness for pickling, but to find a mass producer of a part that, though originally designed for an entirely different purpose, will, when put on the cucumber cultivator, do whatever is needed.

The specific technique for applying this principle is the systematic analysis of products to find the pattern that underlies their multiplicity. Then this pattern can be organized so that the minimum number of manufactured parts will make possible the assembly of the maximum number of products. The burden of diversity, in other words, is taken out of manufacturing and shifted to assembly

One large manufacturer of electric implements produced, ten years ago, 3400 different models, each composed of 40 to 60 parts. The analysis of this line of products first made is possible to reduce the number by about one third; 1200 models were found to be duplications. The analysis still left 2200 products and to make them the company was making or buying well over 100,000 different parts.

After the products had been analyzed, their pattern established and the parts determined, it was found that almost all of the 2200 models fell into 4 categories, according to the voltage they were supposed to carry. Only 40 products did not fit into this pattern. This made it possible to reduce the number of parts for all the other products. Then the number of variations for each part could be cut down to the minimum. Only one part now requires as many as 11 variations; the average today is 5 variations per part.

Production in this company is production of parts even though the final products are widely different. The burden of variety is thrown on assembly. The parts themselves can be produced continuously against a schedule determined by the size of the inventory rather than by customer orders. And the size of the inventory is again determined by the time needed for assembly and delivery.

This new-style mass production is the most immediately useful production concept that we have in our possession today. It is still understood only by a minority of production people, and applied only in a fairly small number of companies. Also the techniques and methods to take full advantage of the concept have only now become available. It is above all the logical methods of “Operations Research” that allows us to make the complicated analysis of products and parts that are necessary to put the correct mass production principle into effect.