According to some sources, the world’s first moving assembly line began operation at the Henry Ford Company in 1913. The actual date of initial operation is subject to debate, but I’ll use this one. The moving assembly line was a monumental revolution in the production of cars, and, ultimately in mass production in general. On the positive side, I suppose, the moving assembly line was a giant leap forward in producing relatively inexpensive cars for the masses, and his methods were known at the time as Fordism. On the not-so-positive side, Ford’s innovation spawned repetitive, dull labor, mass consumption of identical cars, and traffic jams. I’m a colossal fan of handmade goods and public transport.
The main point to understand is that Ford did not invent the assembly line; that has a very long history. He invented the moving assembly line. The assembly line in general is practically as old as civilization. Any system in which a product moves from one person to the next for the addition of components is an assembly line. So, for example, in a professional kitchen a plate can move from the roast station to the vegetable station to the sauce station and then out to the diner. Three different chefs have added a component to make the plate complete. Ford made several changes to increase efficiency and speed in assembly. First, he standardized the components; second he standardized the actions on the assembly line; and third he created a constantly moving conveyer belt so that the cars moved from one assembly point to the next. His innovation cut the assembly time for a car from about 12 hours by hand to about 2½ hours on the moving line.
With mass produced standard parts there was no time wasted getting components to fit, as there is in hand manufacture. Building a car using Ford’s method is just like building a house using lego blocks. Every component fits where it should on the car because the car has a completely uniform construction, which means that every car is identical and all the parts are interchangeable. The components are fitted together in carefully regulated steps. Ford had time and motion experts calculate the precise number of steps (87) needed to construct a car, as well as the order and most efficient way to organize the construction. The moving conveyer belt meant that the cars under construction moved from station to station where workers had the parts ready to attach. The workers were trained in the one task each had to manage so they could perform it quickly. In consequence a car rolled off the assembly line every 3 minutes. That’s great for mass production, but not so great in other ways.
Assembly line production in this manner has two major flaws, in my opinion. First, it produces endless copies of the original model. Ford is famous for saying that you could have the model-T in any color you wanted as long as it’s black. Nowadays assembly line production has some variety built in but in Ford’s day it was the continual production of identical models that was one key to low cost. In addition, Ford’s innovation made labor repetitive (that is, boring). If you are trained to fit driver-side doors on the cars, that’s all you do 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. That reduced Ford’s labor costs, because such work is not skilled labor, and, like parts, one line worker can easily be replaced by another if one gets sick or is inefficient. Ford paid decent wages and the work was steady because demand for his cars was high. But the work itself was dehumanizing.
Ford’s production methods not only revolutionized production, but revolutionized culture in general. You have to decide whether the costs outweigh the benefits or vice versa. I’ve done assembly-line work and it’s not for me. The job was well paid, but the days at work robbed my soul of creativity and dignity. I became a slave to production at the expense of my humanity. The inhumanity of the moving assembly line is famously parodied in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times:
Like industrial production, assembly-line cooking has its pluses and minuses. At its worst we end up with mass-produced fast food that may be cheap but has few redeeming features beyond filling an empty belly. But assembly-line cooking is not all bad, and sometimes results in something special. As the name implies a line cook is a cook working on a culinary assembly line, and busy restaurants, even the fanciest, cannot always produce every dish, one plate at a time assembled by a single cook.
At home I occasionally need to use assembly line techniques, especially when I am cooking for a crowd, and pretty much always when I am having a dinner party. Cooking shows on television often make a big deal out of plating a meal. I don’t do that at home. I do not assemble plates in the kitchen and then bring them to the dining table ready to eat. My guests have empty plates and I bring all the dishes to the table. They then circulate, and guests help themselves as the different components pass. So it’s like an assembly line except in this case it is the components that move and the finished product stays in one place. The finished product is not as elegant as it would be if I made each dish in the kitchen, but the seeming paradox here is that by using a moving assembly line for all the components, each diner’s plate is unique. Assembly lines do not have to result in identical products.
There is also a certain amount of efficiency to using assembly line methods in the kitchen. So, for example, if I have 4 apples to peel, core, and slice. I could peel, core and slice the first, then the second, and so on, and that’s what I used to do for a long time. But now I peel all 4, then core all 4, then slice all 4. When I managed a catering company and when I directed church suppers, we always had assembly lines.
Here’s a very efficient assembly line in Thailand: