The flow of materials and components through a linear path is integral to producing a uniform product. This is why the production line process has remained such a tried and true concept in manufacturing.
Many people are familiar with the basic concept of the factory line—a phrase that conjures up images of assembly line robots welding cars or cans and boxes being automatically filled with precise quantities of processed food.
Although it’s a common notion that modern assembly lines started with the Ford Motor Company, few people realize that manufacturing line concepts predate the Industrial Revolution. Just where did the production line start?
Origins Of Modern Assembly Lines
Even the most complex automated assembly lines start with a concept known as division of labor. Unlike a traditional crafting process, which is usually contained to one or a small number of workers creating a product from start to finish, division of labor separates an assembly process into distinct tasks.
Each task is performed by a worker specializing in that one aspect of assembly. This means they don’t need to learn nearly as many aspects of creating a product, the use of additional tools, or experience working with as many materials.
And a process that might take a single worker a full day or week, could be replicated by multiple workers in a fraction of the time, thereby yielding more output.
This does require an abundance of raw material, greater production space, and oversight, but for standardized, in-demand products, this style of assembly production delivers a lot of dividends for an initial labor and material investment.
Manufacturing Lines Foster Revolution
Division of labor serves as the foundation of the production line many people envision. It amounts to faster, more consistent production through defined steps that are easier to teach and faster to learn.
It has been in use ancient in China and 12th century Venice—long before the mass production of the Industrial Revolution. The concept was eventually employed to realize increasingly industrial processes of the late 1700s and early 1800s in Europe.
During this period, small production spaces in homes, local mills, and workshops began to transform with the introduction of linear processes. And with them, the foundations of a modern manufacturing line began to take shape.
Goods that were once produced by a master craftsman with the help of an apprentice were instead made by dozens of trained workers, following short and easy-to-replicate steps, at the direction of an overseer.
Bulk material handling and flow assembly lines with multiple production levels were implemented through the mid-19th century.
The development of more sophisticated automated machinery and interchangeable parts, including the jigs, dies, and fixtures of milling machines, lathes, and planers accelerated processes and production rates.
Steam-powered belt systems, conveyor lifts, and rail-delivered materials running through urban centers furthered assembly line automation.
Automated Assembly Lines And Reshuffled Workers
Humans were also increasingly reshuffled in this new approach to production. The Chicago meatpacking industry was one of the more notable examples of how modern division of work concepts were applied.
Through this system, a carcass was moved via a pulley line to fixed stations where each worker would quickly perform a defined task, which was repeated throughout the course of their shift.
The process was continuous, uniform, and highly efficient. It was also incredibly influential on Henry Ford, who famously applied it to the Ford Motor Company as the moving assembly line, which would be modified, enhanced, and quickly serve as an indispensable factor in America’s early dominance in industrial manufacturing.
Factory Lines And Manufacturing’s Reputation
Mass production wouldn’t likely exist without highly automated assembly lines and the merger of humans and machines to optimize production. But, the approach has not been without its issues.
The highly repetitive, fast-moving, machinery-intensive, and socially isolating nature of factory lines meant that the work could be physically and mentally stressful. Minimal skill requirements meant that job security was elusive and jobs could be unfulfilling.
This amounted to high-worker turnover, limited opportunities for prosperity, and a less-than-inspiring association with manufacturing in general, which, despite many improvements, is something the sector still struggles with today.
This is part of the reason why the human element of the assembly line is dwindling. The introduction of assembly line robots in the middle of the 20th century and continued technological advancements have been almost as game-changing as the production line concept itself.
Today, it’s not unusual to find factories that operate with a complete robot assembly line and just one or a few humans overseeing production.
Despite how much the production line has changed over just the last decade and how unrecognizable it would be to its past innovators, the roots of the modern manufacturing line are deeper than most people realize.