What Is an Assembly Line?

If you're reading this article, there's a good chance that the computer or other device you're using was made on an assembly line. This is a manufacturing process that allows products to be mass-produced in a cost-effective manner. This process is used across many industries but is most certainly associated with the automotive world. But how does it work? And when did it start? Keep reading to learn more about how assembly lines work, the history of the assembly line, and how to determine when this modern-day wonder works.

Key Takeaways

  • An assembly line is a production process that divides labor by breaking up the manufacture of a product into steps that are completed in a pre-defined sequence.
  • Assembly lines were used in the late 1800s when workers used pulley systems to move products from one station to the next.
  • Ransom Olds used that system to manufacture his Curved Dash Oldsmobile.
  • Henry Ford created the first moving assembly line, combining Olds' idea with conveyor belts, to mass-produce the Model T in 1913.
  • The modern assembly line is used in many different industries, increasing output, cutting down costs, and boosting profits.

Understanding Assembly Lines

An assembly line is a production process that divides up the labor process. It breaks up the manufacture of a good into steps that are completed in a pre-defined sequence. Assembly lines are the most commonly used method in the mass production of products.

Assembly lines are able to reduce labor costs because unskilled workers could be easily trained to perform specific tasks. Rather than hire a skilled craftsman to put together an entire piece of furniture or vehicle engine, companies are able to hire a worker to only add a leg to a stool or bolt to a machine.

History of the Assembly Line

The assembly line drastically changed the way goods were manufactured. Prior to its introduction, workers would assemble a product—or a large part of it—in place, often with one worker completing all tasks associated with product creation. Assembly lines, on the other hand, have workers (or machines) complete a specific task on the product as it continues along the production line rather than complete a series of tasks. This increases efficiency by maximizing the amount a worker could produce relative to the cost of labor.

Most people credit Henry Ford with the assembly line. But he wasn't actually the one who invented it. Assembly lines were used in the late 1800s by a variety of industries, such as meatpackers. These versions used pulley systems to move items over from one person to the next. The very first assembly line was created by another carmaker. Ransom E. Olds mass-produced the world's first automobile on an assembly line in 1901. He sold this car, a Curved Dash Oldsmobile, for a total of $650.

Ford took this idea and went even further by installing the moving assembly line in 1913. He was looking for a way to improve the production process and make it more efficient. Ford studied other industries, such as flour mills and slaughterhouses, which used conveyor belts to streamline the production process and implemented the idea into his manufacturing facility.

With a moving assembly line, his workers could stay in place without having to haul heavy items from one area to another. This process allowed Ford to mass-produce vehicles—the Ford Model T—cutting down the production time from half a day to a little over 90 minutes for a single car.

Ford's idea changed the manufacturing world. Although many industries still produce items one-by-one and by hand, assembly lines can be found throughout the world. Innovation led to the automated assembly line, which eliminated the need for human labor until the very end of the production process. Not only does this improve efficiency and higher production output, but it also lowered costs and production time. This, in turn, led to greater profits for companies and their workers.

Types of Assembly Lines

Assembly lines vary based on who uses them and for what purpose. They are commonly tailored to the products that are being produced. But the categories are generally divided into the following:

  • Automated: Instead of people, these assembly lines are mainly operated by and with the help of machine labor. The majority of assembly lines are automated.
  • Classic: Classic assembly lines use a series of steps and different individuals to make one product, such as an automobile.
  • Intermittent: This type of assembly line produces similar but not identical products. The furniture industry, for example, may use an intermittent assembly line to produce pieces that have different types of upholstery.
  • Lean: Similar to an automated line, this one involves the use of a team of workers rather than one or two individuals.

When to Use an Assembly Line

Determining what individual tasks must be completed, when they need to be completed, and who will complete them is a crucial step in establishing an effective assembly line. Complicated products, such as cars, have to be broken down into components that machines and workers can quickly assemble.

Companies use a design for assembly approach to analyze a product and its design in order to determine assembly order, as well as to determine issues that can affect each task. Each task is categorized as either manual, robotic or automatic, and then assigned to individual stations along the manufacturing plant floor.

Companies can also design products with their assembly in mind, referred to as concurrent engineering. This allows the company to start the manufacture of a new product that has been designed with mass production in mind, with the tasks, task order, and assembly line layout already predetermined. This can significantly reduce the lead time between the initial product design release and the final product rollout.

Automation may be great for corporate profits, they often lead to a reduction in skilled labor.

Assembly Line FAQs

How Did the Assembly Line Impact Society?

The assembly line had a great impact on society on many different levels. It increased production output, which saved companies time and money. This impacted their bottom lines, leading to higher profits. And since earlier versions of the assembly line allowed workers to remain in place, they were no longer required to move or haul heavy items from one place to the next to complete production. But the assembly line has cut out the need for skilled labor since modern versions typically require individuals with fewer skills or no labor at all.

Did Henry Ford Really Invent the Assembly Line?

Although Henry Ford is credited with inventing the assembly line, he wasn't actually the one who created the system. Some industries, such as the meat industry, used assembly lines to help speed up their production processes. Workers used pulley systems to move carcasses from one person to the next. Ransom Olds used this idea to manufacture the Curved Dash Oldsmobile. Ford took that idea and implemented the conveyor belt system used in other industries to mass-produce the Ford Model T on the very first iteration of the modern assembly line in 1913.

What Is the Difference Between a Production Line and an Assembly Line?

Although they're commonly confused, production lines and assembly lines are two different things. A production line involves the movement of products that are manufactured in a linear process. This means that a product moves progressively from start to finish in a sequential manner. Food processing uses production lines to move from raw materials to packaged goods. An assembly line, on the other hand, involves the addition of parts and components to complete a product, such as a car.

What Industries Use the Assembly Line?

Assembly lines have been used in many different industries since the late 1800s and are still used today. They are predominantly used in the automotive, transportation, sporting goods, electronics, food and beverage, clothing, and consumer goods industries, among others.

The Bottom Line

The assembly line is a vital part of today's manufacturing world. They help improve efficiency, cut down costs, and also increase production output while boosting corporate profits. Although he didn't invent it—assembly lines were used in the late 1800s by different industries—Henry Ford is generally credited with modernizing the assembly line when he introduced the moving conveyor belt to mass-produce his Ford Model T in 1913. Thanks to his innovation, other sectors in the economy now use the modern assembly line to produce their products.