The Assembly Line: Prudent, or Scheme for World Domination?

It may have been a bit of both. Henry Ford was genius, no doubt (he apprenticed with Edison). And obsessed not simply with making a car, but with making THE car that was the most drive-able and accessible. In this scenario, “accessible” wasn’t necessarily about pricing for the middle class, although that came in time, but with making a car that was physically easy to drive.

Built Ford Tough

Predecessors were clunky, noisy, and cumbersome–steam powered, couldn’t handle dirt roads and terrain. After Ford’s two failures at developing car companies, he finally developed the Ford Motor Company, all the time working on models A through S, until the Model T was perfection. It was built to take on the landscape. It was built Ford tough.

Watch a video about the rugged Model T, with bonus insight about how cars called for infrastructure like roads (which in turn led to hotels, gas stations, restaurants, etc.) You’re welcome to watch the whole thing, but I suggest stopping at 2 minutes – we’ll get to the other content shortly.

The Inspiration for the Assembly Line

It took 12 hours to build the “Tin Lizzie.” And in order to expand business, Henry Ford thought that there’s got to be a better way. So instead of moving the men to the parts, he brought the materials to the men. He studied cattle slaughter (yup) and cotton on conveyor belts and combined their savvy into the modern assembly line. With these practices in place it took 93 minutes to complete a car–vs the original 12 hours. Shazzam.

He also cut costs with vertical integration, making all of the necessary parts on site vs buying from other companies, which added costs and time. In some ways this is a risky venture – all or nothing. And in others you can dominate, which Ford did.

Watch this video of an historic assembly line. Is the speed natural or the effect of old-timey film? Regardless, it’s there. You can stop watching whenever you like, but around minute 4 it duplicates the above video.

The Modern Assembly Line

The Ford Rouge Factory is an amazing tour. Not just for the ability to watch something being made (Ford F-150s), but for the ballet of the assembly line. To call it an assembly line is actually an insult to the elevation of what they’ve done here. It’s a marvel.

The facts: the plant is four miles long and employs 1,000 people. They build 60 trucks per hour, giving folks ONE MINUTE TO COMPLETE EACH TASK.

More than a conveyor belt, a moving sidewalk brings the trucks to the worker’s station. There, he or she has the parts needed to install the floorboard, rearview mirror, left or right wiper blade (one person does each). All the while, the moving sidewalk is still moving. Complete your task on this car and repeat on the next.

Ford Rouge Factory Tour

Photos courtesy of Flickr

I was stunned by how much is done by hand, vs robot. There are aisle after aisle of milestones. Even 30 stations just to build the door! And colors vary on the line – it’s not a batch of reds followed by a batch of blacks (except in the photo below). They paint them in the order in which they are, well, ordered. So there’s no backlog.

Ford Rouge Factory Tour

Photo courtesy of Ford Rouge Factory Tour

Each station has the parts designated to complete their task. It’s Ikea-like (or perhaps Ikea is factory-like) in the quantity and tidiness. And like Oompa Loompas, when you need more, they appear. Yes, I know there’s a sophisticated ordering system, and I mean no disrespect to the inventory staff. It’s just that the whole place has a Willy Wonka mystique. It works so perfectly that it’s actually eerie.

Ford Rouge Factory Tour

Photos courtesy of Flickr

Tools are ergonomic to each need to minimize strain, and they hang from clips on a wire above, accessed via retractable lines. No tool belts.

No uniform either. Men, women, all ethnicities, all ages, all wardrobes.

The place is immaculate, practically no smell, and only minor noise. That is a feat in itself.

Ford Rouge Factory Tour

Photo courtesy of Flickr

There’s so much more to say about Henry Ford the man: anti-semitic acts, which he later retracted; stellar labor conditions and pay but a staunch anti-union man; and a love for America that expressed itself in a surprising way–stay tuned for tomorrow’s post to learn about that.


Have you ever worked on an assembly line?
In a plant in any capacity?
Please share your story.

Disclosure: Thank you to Visit Detroit for the complimentary ticket to the Ford Rouge Factory Tour.


7 Responses

I really enjoyed this post. So interesting!

Thanks, friend!


Have always enjoyed seeing how things are made; this was highly interesting and I’m looking forward to the continuation.


i’ve always wanted to know about this. good stuff. cannot believe no tool belts or uniforms.

imagine if we had no “uniform” at work. what do you think would happen?


interesting, curious, amazing, inspiring & honestly unsettling.
stanislawa recently posted..owl & pussycat loveMy Profile

hmm. i’m intrigued and enlightened by your observation that it’s unsettling.

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