Efficiency and the Factory

Taking the advice of efficiency expert Walter Flanders in 1908 Ford bought grounds in Highland Park, where he intended to employ the most modern ideas about production, particularly those of Frederick Winslow Taylor. Those would bring as Taylor had prophesied an absolute rationality to the industrial process. The idea was to break each function down into much smaller units so that each could be mechanized and speeded up and eventually flow into a straight line production of little pieces becoming steadily larger. The process began to change in the spring of 1913. The first piece on the modern assembly line was the magneto coil assembly. In the past, a worker and he had to be a skilled worker had made a flywheel magneto from start to finish. A good employee could make 34 or 40 a day. Now, however, there was an assembly line for magnetos, divided into 29 different operations performed by 29 different men. In the old system it took 20 minutes to make a magneto; now it took 13.

Ford and his men soon moved to bring the same rationality to the rest of the factory. Quickly, they imposed a comparable system for the assembly of motors and transmissions. Then, in the summer of 1913, they took on the final assembly, which as the rest of the process had speeded up, had become the great bottleneck. The workers (now maneuvered) as quickly as they could around a stationary metal object, the car they were putting together. If the men could remain stationary as the semi-finished car moved up the line through them, less of the workers’ time Ford’s time would be wasted.

Charles Sorensen, who had become one of Ford’s top production people initiated he assembly line by pulling a Model T chassis slowly by a windlass across 250 feet factory floor, timing the process all the while. Behind him walked six workers, picking up parts from carefully spaced piles on the floor and fitting them to the chassis. Soon the breakthrough came even more rapidly. By installing an automatic conveyor belt, Ford could eventually assemble a car in 93 minutes. A few years before, in the days of stationary chassis assembly, the best record for putting a car together had been 728 hours of one man’s work. Ford’s top executives celebrated their victory with a dinner at Detroit’s Pontchartrain Hotel Fittingly they rigged a simple conveyor belt to a five horsepower engine with a bicycle chain and use the conveyor to serve the food around the table. It typified the spirit camaraderie and confidence of the early days.

Nineteen years and more than different fifteen million cars later, when Ford reluctantly came to the conclusion that he had to stop making the T, the company balance was $673 million. And this was not merely a company’s success; it was the beginning of a social revolution. Ford himself (believed) he had achieved a breakthrough for the common man. Mass production he wrote later precedes mass consumption and makes it possible by reducing costs and thus permitting both greater use convenience and price convenience.

(Not surprisingly) the price of the Model T continued to come down from $780 in the fiscal year 1910-11 to $690 the following year, then to $600 to $550 and on the eve of World war I, to $360. At the price, Ford sold 730,041 cars, out producing everyone else in the world.

Henry Ford, immigrant’s son and one time machinist’s apprentice had indeed become a very rich man. Obviously he had become so by being a venturesome and successful theorist of industrial management. But both his practices and his personality drew fore from those who were critical of his implicit attitude toward those ‘masses’ for whom he had originally perfected and prized the Model T. For example, his widely publicized doubling of wages for employees in 1914 was seen by some as a trailblazing maneuver in management labor relations, by others as a scheme to solidify Ford’s paternalistic power over those who depended upon him for a living. In addition, Ford stubbornly resisted the unionization of his employees long after his major competitors had made agreements with union organizations. Repression on the part of company police against union agitators was common on the company’s grounds until, finally, having lost an election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board (a government agency established in 1935 to affirm labor’s right to bargain collectively ) Ford contracted with the United Auto Workers in 1941.