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Mass Production

MASS PRODUCTION

MASS PRODUCTION is a system of manufacturing based on principles such as the use of interchangeable parts, large-scale production, and the high-volume assembly line. Although ideas analogous to mass production existed in many industrialized nations dating back to the eighteenth century, the concept was not fully utilized until refined by Henry Ford in the early twentieth century and then developed over the next several decades. Ford's success in producing the Model T automobile set the early standard for what mass production could achieve. As a result, mass production quickly became the dominant form of manufacturing around the world, also exerting a profound impact on popular culture. Countless artists, writers, and filmmakers used the image of the assembly line to symbolize either the good or the evil of modern society and technological prowess.

Background

British inventors pioneered the earliest use of machine tools. Early inventors like Richard Arkwright and Henry Maudslay built precision machines necessary for mass production. Many of England's early machine tool artisans worked as apprentices, then later crafted precision lathes, plane surfaces, and measuring instruments. Even with the early successes in Europe, scholars of technology attribute the widespread adoption of mass production to trailblazers in the United States. With its abundant waterpower, coal, and raw material, but shortage of workers, America was the ideal place for building skill into machinery. From the start, American leaders attempted to mechanize production of barrels, nails, and other goods. In the early 1800s, the American inventor Thomas Blanchard used mechanized production to make rifles and muskets for the federal armory in Springfield, Massachusetts. Blanchard's efforts were supported by the War Department, which also backed other applications of mass production.

The distinct system developed in the United States became known as the American System of manufacturing. In the nineteenth century, the nation witnessed the rise of innovators such as Eli Whitney, Samuel Colt, and Cyrus McCormick. These leaders were committed to interchangeability and mechanized production. By 1883, the Singer Manufacturing Company sold over 500,000 sewing machines. McCormick, whose machine enabled farmers to double crop sizes, produced thousands of grain reapers in the mid-1800s and spurred additional innovation in agriculture. These early innovators, however, depended on skilled machinists to properly fit parts together. Only later, when parts were completely interchangeable, did true mass production occur.

Impact

Many factors came together in the early twentieth century to make mass production possible. Henry Ford's decision to produce an inexpensive automobile that working people could afford was a gamble. He succeeded in convincing his financial partners to back his idea through sheer determination. Detroit's history of mechanical innovation also played an important role. The city's many skilled engineers and designers helped refine Ford's early attempts and later helped build large factories to showcase his ideas. The abundant talent—similar to California's Silicon Valley in the late twentieth century—allowed Ford to recruit talented employees. The immigration boom in Michigan provided Ford's company with the unskilled workers for the assembly lines.

Ford's determination to make Model T's and only Model T's helped in the development of mass production techniques based on the moving belt assembly line. Each process was broken down into its smallest parts. As the components moved down the line, the pieces were fitted to form the whole. Throughout the process, Ford emphasized accuracy; experts noted the durability and soundness of his automobiles. Ford devised an assembly line that delivered parts moving by hooks, overhead chains, or moving platforms to workers in the exact order in which they were required for production.

The assembly line gave Ford factories a fluid appearance and dramatically increased productivity. Without the assembly line, Ford would not have been able to keep pace with consumer demand. At the same time, Ford hoped to maximize economies of scale by building large factories. Most important for consumers, the increased efficiency brought with it a reduced cost. Model T prices quickly dropped from more than $800 to $300. As a result of these innovations, workers were soon able to produce a new Model T every two minutes. The company sold 11,000 cars from 1908 to 1909, a 60 percent increase over the previous year. Ford then outdid himself with the 1910–1911 model, selling 34,528. Sales skyrocketed in 1914, reaching 248,000, or nearly half the U.S. market. The heavy demand forced Ford to continue innovating. He built the largest and most modern factory in America on a sixty-acre tract at Highland Park, north of Detroit. Ford's net income soared from $25 million in 1914 to $78 million by 1921.

Another essential facet of Ford's mass production system was his willingness to adopt resourceful means of finding labor to work the assembly lines. The sheer size of the workforce Ford needed to keep pace combined with the monotony of the assembly line led to great turnover in the factories. Early in 1914, Ford introduced the "five dollar day" to deal with labor shortage. He paid workers the then-outrageous sum of$5 a day for an eight-hour workday. The basic wage eclipsed the industry standard of$1.80 to $2.50 a day on a longer shift. The five dollar day program transformed Ford from a business leader into a legend.

Because of mass production and Ford's high wages, company workerswere given the ability to elevate themselves above working-class means, contributing to the growing consumer culture in the United States. With the extra pay, they participated in the accumulation of material items previously out of their reach. In turn, other mass producers, especially of middle-class luxuries, were given another outlet for goods. The five dollar day ensured the company that it would always have the workers


needed to produce, while at the same time allowing working-class families a means to participate in America's consumer culture.

Even the decline of the Model T did not affect the demand for automobiles. Mass production techniques spread to other car manufacturers. Alfred P. Sloan of General Motors introduced the annual model change in the 1920s. The changing look of automobiles, made affordable by mass production, mirrored the changing national landscape. A sweeping car craze prompted the desire for material abundance that would mark the genesis of modern America after World War II.

Advertisers, artists, and writers used the factory and assembly line to symbolize life in the United States. Often, they associated manliness with technology and engineering. Many looked upon the factories that linked American cities with an attitude akin to romanticism. Corporate marketing, advertising, and public relations staffs and outside agencies developed to massage this message into the public's subconscious. Many factories even began offering tours to show off production capabilities. Ford's Highland Park factory received more than 3,000 visitors a day before 1920. General Electric, National Cash Register, and Hershey Chocolate established tours as well. They were a new form of public relations and left visitors with a deep, positive impression of the company. Over the next several decades, the influence and dominance of mass production solidified around the world. In preparing for World War I and then World War II, nations intensified mass production of arms and ammunition. The efficiencies of mass production allowed American businesses to switch from consumer goods to war stuffs quickly. The amount of armaments brought to the war effort by the United States turned the tide in both wars.

After World War II, American industry shifted back to consumer goods, but did not slow the pace. The rise of suburban living and the subsequent baby boom kept assembly line production at phenomenal rates. The growth of the middle class, both its wages and desire for material goods, can be traced to the development and dominance of mass production. Mass production also bears great responsibility for the manipulation and exploitation of workers, particularly unskilled labor. The process made workers dispensable and increased the power of the foremen, managers, and department heads that wielded power over them. These influences were mocked across the popular culture spectrum, from Upton Sinclair's muckraking novel The Jungle (1906) to the 1936 film by Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times.

Mass production techniques maximized the profit making ability of corporations, but it dehumanized the lives of workers. Frederick W. Taylor introduced scientific management at the beginning of the twentieth century, which used time and motion studies (often timing them with a stopwatch) to measure workers' output. Taylor's goal was to find the ideal process and then duplicate it over and over. In the abstract, scientific management was a giant leap forward, but in reality, mass production led to worker unrest, turnover, and social conflict. Unionization efforts, particularly the struggles to organize unskilled workers by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s and 1940s, and battles between management and employees intensified as workers became more alienated because of the factory setting.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. A Social History of American Technology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Hounshell, David A. From the American System to Mass Production, 1800–1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

Kranzberg, Melvin, and Joseph Gies. By the Sweat of Thy Brow: Work in the Western World. New York: Putnam, 1975.

Nye, David E. American Technological Sublime. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994.

BobBatchelor

See alsoConsumerism ; Ford Motor Company ; Industrial Management ; Industrial Relations ; Manufacturing .

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Mass Production

Mass production

Mass production is the manufacture of goods in large quantities using standardized designs so the goods are all the same. Assembly-line techniques are usually used. An assembly line is a system in which a product is manufactured in a step-by-step process as it moves continuously past an arrangement of workers and machines. This system is one of the most powerful productivity concepts in history. It was largely responsible for the emergence and expansion of the industrialized, consumer-based system we have today.

While various mass production techniques were practiced in ancient times, the English were probably the first to use water-powered and steam-powered machinery in industrial production during the Industrial Revolution that began in the mid-1700s. But it is generally agreed that modern mass production techniques came into widespread use through the inventiveness of Americans. As a matter of fact, modern mass production has been called the "American System."

Famous American contributors to mass production

The early successes of the American System are often attributed to Eli Whitney. He adapted mass production techniques and the interchangeability of parts to the manufacture of muskets (a type of gun) for the U.S. government in the 1790s.

Some people say that Whitney's musket parts were not truly interchangeable and that credit for the American System should go to John Hall, the New England gunsmith who built flintlock pistols for the government. Hall built many of the machine tools needed for precision manufacturing. He achieved a higher level of interchangeability and precision than did Whitney.

Oliver Evans's many inventions in the flour milling process led to an automated mill that could be run by a single miller. Samuel Colt and Elijah King Root were very successful innovators in the development of parts for the assembly-line production of firearms. Eli Terry adapted mass production methods to clock-making in the early 1800s. George Eastman made innovations in assembly-line techniques in the manufacture and developing of photographic film later in the century.

Words to Know

Assembly line: A sequence of workers, machines, and parts down which an incomplete product passes, each worker performing a procedure, until the product is assembled.

Interchangeability: Parts that are so similar that they can be switched between different machines or products and the machines or products will still work.

Mass production begins at Ford

Credit for the development of large-scale, assembly-line, mass production techniques is usually given to Henry Ford and his innovative Model T car production methods, which began in 1908. Cars were a relatively new invention and were still too expensive for the average person. Many were too heavy or low powered to be practical. Ford set out to produce a light, strong car for a reasonable price.

The methods of Henry Ford. Groups of workers at Ford initially moved down a line of parts and subassemblies, each worker carrying out a specific task. But some workers and groups were faster or slower than others, and they often got in each other's way. So Ford and his technicians decided to move the work instead of the workers.

Beginning in 1913, Ford's workers stood in one place while parts came by on conveyor belts. The Model T car moved past the workers on another conveyor belt. Car bodies were built on one line and the chassis (floor) and drive train (engine and wheels) were built on another. When both were essentially complete, the body was lowered onto the chassis for final assembly.

It has been said that Ford took the inspiration for his assembly line from the meat-processing and canning factories that moved carcasses along lines of overhead rails as early as the 1840s. Although he was not the first to use the assembly-line technique, Ford can certainly be viewed as the most successful of the early innovators due to one simple fact: Ford envisioned and fostered mass consumption as a natural consequence of mass production. His techniques lessened the time needed to build a Model T from about 12 hours to 1 hour. The price was reduced as well: from about $850 for the first Model T in 1908 to only $290 in 1927.

Technique puts an end to craftsmanship

Assembly-line techniques required changing the skills necessary to build a product. Previously, each worker was responsible for the complete manufacture and assembly of all the parts needed to build any single product. This work was done by hand and relied on the individual worker's skills.

Mass production and parts interchangeability demanded that all parts be identical. Machines rather than individuality came to dictate the production process. Each part was duplicated by a machine process. The craft tradition, so important in human endeavor for centuries, was abandoned. Assembly of these machine-made parts was now divided into a series of small repetitive steps that required much less skill than traditional craftsmanship.

Modern mass production techniques changed the relationship of people to their work. Mass production has replaced craftsmanship, and the repetitive assembly line is now the world's standard for all manufacturing processes.

[See also Industrial Revolution ]

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mass production

mass production Manufacture of goods in large quantities by standardizing parts, techniques and machinery. American inventor Eli Whitney introduced mass production in 1798 to produce weapons. The assembly line, a conveyor belt carrying the work through a series of assembly areas, was introduced in 1913 by Henry Ford. Many mass-production processes depend on computer control of machines, including robots.

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Mass Production

MASS PRODUCTION


Prior to the nineteenth century manufacturing was largely hand-fitted. The artisan worked with the individual productfor instance, a farm wagonand by using shims or a mallet, he would "make it fit." If production involved machining metal, the machine tolerances would be loose. The system "worked" but the production process was inefficient, repair was chancy, and the price of laborlabor with the right "touch" for making things fitwas high.

In the late eighteenth century, standardized manufacturing transformed production technique. This development was called the American System of Manufactures. First introduced in the firearms industry (especially at the Springfield, Massachusetts federal armory) by inventor Simeon North, the American System was employed in producing pistols for the U.S. government. The parts were machined to set tolerances so that they were interchangeable. Standardization saved time and money in production and made possible the repair of a broken product.

The American System, however, was not yet mass production although the two systems shared the concepts of division of labor and close machining and interchangeability of parts. Mass production also introduced a more efficient organization of the workplace as well as the application of more powerful tools in production. Efficiency in the workplace included the innovation of the assembly line and the time-and-motion studies of Frederick W. Taylor's "Scientific Management." "Taylorism" forced the worker to adopt the most efficient way to do his job. Improved productivity through power tools included the introduction of electric or compressed air power tools and, in more recent times, automated welding robots. All this utterly transformed the factory as a space to work.

Perhaps the most significant difference between mass production and the earlier American System, however, was the enormous production goals of mass production. The best example of this is the Ford Motor Company. The assembly time for a single Model T went from 150 minutes in 1913 to 26 1/2 minutes in 1914. One important difference was the installation of the chain-driven assembly line. Production climbed from 13,380 Model T Fords in 1909 to 585,388 in 1916. The economies of scale associated with such production goals meant that Ford could afford to pay his workers better wages (the five-dollar day) and to cut the price of the car. A Model T dropped in price from 950 dollars in 1909 to only 360 dollars in 1916. In doing this, Henry Ford forever changed the nature of American society.

See also: American System of Manufactures, Assembly Line, Henry Ford, Frederick W. Taylor

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mass production

mass production: see production.

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Mass Production

Mass Production

Predecessors to mass production

Mass production begins at Ford

The assembly line

The spread and limits of mass production

Mass production and advertising

Supporters and detractors of mass production

Mass production today

Resources

Mass production is a system of manufacturing products that uses specialized labor, machinery, the smooth and logical flow of materials, and an assembly line to turn out large volumes of the same product at the lowest possible cost. The fullest expression of mass production was probably found at the Ford Motor Company in the early years of the twentieth century, when hundreds of thousands of Model Ts were produced a year, all exactly the same.

Predecessors to mass production

The principals of mass production grew out of manufacturing techniques that were already widespread in the United States. Called the American system or the uniformity system, these techniques called for goods made of interchangeable parts. This meant that the cost of parts went down, but it was expensive to set up an interchangeable parts system.

Initially the uniformity system was most important in the manufacture of military equipment and clocks, both of which were built from many small parts that had to be made carefully. The United States government wanted to build weapons of high quality cheaply and swiftly, and make the parts uniform so that they could be quickly repaired during a battle. The process began at the end of the 1700s. At that time, while two rifles might look the same, any given part from one probably would not fit into the other. Guns were instead made one at a time by skilled craftsmen.

Guns required parts to be made with great accuracy. The federal government financed the initial attempts to use interchangeable parts. Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin, began the task around 1798. The parts of his muskets became more standardized but they were not really interchangeable. New equipment was invented that made parts with greater precision, and a system was created to ensure interchangeability. Patterns were used to make the parts, and a series of standardized tools were then used to measure them. Inspectors were sent to different arms factories. As a result, by mid-century the parts made at one factory fit into a gun made at another. Previously, the parts made by one worker would not fit into a gun made by the person next to him.

Around 1800, clocks still were made one at a time, by hand. As a result, they were so expensive that few people owned one. The demand for clocks increased as more people lived in cities and had tight work

schedules. To make clocks more cheaply, manufacturers began using power machinery and dividing labor so that workers specialized in a few tasks. Patterns were used to make parts interchangeable. Using these techniques, over 80,000 wooden clocks were made in Connecticut in 1836twice as many as were owned in all of the United States in 1800. Division of labor was further refined so that by the 1850s, 60 workers had a part in making each clock. At the same time, fewer skilled workers were required because more work was done by machine, and this saved money. The price of a clock dropped from $10 in 1800, to $1.50 about 60 years later.

The techniques used to manufacture clocks and guns spread to other industries. The industrial revolution was underway and an increasing number of products were in demand by business and individuals. The uniformity system was used in varying degrees to make sewing machines, bicycles, and mechanized farm equipment. In each case, some fitting had to be done by specialists. No one had looked at the process as a whole and broken it down into small tasks arranged in the most efficient order possible.

Such ideas were in the air, however. In the 1880s and 1890s management theorist Frederick W. Taylor studied the motion of people at work. He believed that production could be made more efficient by seeing where time and motion were wasted, then designing better work methods.

Mass production begins at Ford

The various threads of mass production came together at the Ford Motor Co. in Highland Park, Michigan, from 1908 to 1915. Cars were a relatively new invention and were still too expensive for the average person. Many were too heavy or low powered to be practical. Henry Ford set out to produce a light, strong car that could be sold at a reasonable price. His Model T, released in 1908, was designed to meet these goals. Fords top engineers and mechanics had backgrounds in the uniformity system, making sewing machines and farm equipment. From the beginning, they adopted interchangeability of parts as a core idea.

After studying how to make cars in the simplest most logical, way possible, Ford built a Model T factory between 1908 and 1910 that favored the sequential assembly of parts. Machine tools, which made the parts of the car, were designed to perform one specialized operation. One machine tool did nothing but drill 45 holes into the side of an engine block. The machine tools were placed at the point in the assembly sequence where they were used; previous manufacturers usually had grouped machine tools together by category.

By 1913, a finished Model T rolled out of the factory every 40 seconds. Production went from 14,000 in 1909 to 189,000 in 1913, while the price dropped from $950 to $550. Contemporary observers were amazed by this level of productivity, but a final innovation was coming.

The assembly line

Initially groups of workers at Ford moved down a line of parts and subassemblies, each carrying out a specific task. But some workers and groups were faster or slower than others, and they often got in each others way. So Ford and his technicians decided to move the work instead of the workers. If engines in need of assembly were moved by a conveyor belt, the speed of work would become standardized to the speed the conveyor belt moved.

The concept of the assembly line came from many places, including slaughterhouses, where they operated in reverse. An animal carcass, hung on a hook, would slide down an overhead rail, while different workers removed various cuts of meat. No one had applied this idea to manufacturing, however.

After months of experimenting with various lengths and rates of speed for the assembly line, Ford switched its factory to assembly line production in 1913. The amount of time required to build a car plummeted to about a third of what it had been, and production skyrocketed, reaching 585,000 in 1916. Because the assembly line was so demanding on workers, many left. To avoid constantly hiring and training new workers, Ford began paying them $5 a daydouble the average wages at the time.

The spread and limits of mass production

Ford became the toast of the nation. Manufacturers of many types quickly became interested in his methods. The companys manufacturing process was initially known as Fordism, before being called mass production in the 1920s. Soon other car manufacturers, as well as manufacturers ranging from household appliances to radios, were using variations on Fords methods. Fords system called for making one unchanging product. Each copy of a product was exactly the same, and customers didnt have any choices about the cars they wanted to buy. For the first 12 years of its production, the Model T was available only in black. However, by the time the 15 millionth Model T had been built in 1927, the basic design was 20 years old and the market was saturated. No one wanted to buy any more Model Ts and its sales were falling fast.

When one of Fords rivals, General Motors, designed and expanded its own mass production system during the 1920s, it built it with a greater amount of flexibility. GM used general purpose machine tools that could be adapted quickly to design changes. It also built the parts that went into its cars at a variety of locations, rather than all in the same factory as at Ford. When GM switched from a four-cylinder engine to a six-cylinder engine, the company first perfected the equipment at a small experimental plant. It was then able to switch over the main engine plant in Flint, Michigan, to six-cylinder production in a mere three weeks. Other parts of GMs business continued with no interruption at all.

In contrast, when Ford switched from the dying Model T to the Model A in 1927, the entire factory had to be shut down for six months. Ford had become so good at producing one product, and had become so specialized, that the change to a new product threw the company into chaos. After this demonstration of the shortcomings of doing everything in one factory, Ford too became less centralized. Mass production clearly had needed more flexibility; now it had it.

Mass production and advertising

Mass production requires mass consumption. Thus mass production helped create the modern advertising industry as manufacturers sought to make consumers buy their products. But what if everyone already had bought a car? Partly to give customers more choices, partly to give those who already owned a car a reason to buy another, in the 1920s GM began creating a new version of its cars each year. In the 1930s, Ford followed. While mass-production purists like Henry Ford felt this was a marketing gimmick more appropriate for clothes than cars, most consumers were happy to finally have more choice in what they bought. Further, the Model T had been designed purely to function well. Many found it ugly. The Model A was considered far more visually appealing. Industrial design became important in winning customers. Just because hundreds of thousands of copies of a product were made did not mean they had to be visually uninteresting.

Supporters and detractors of mass production

As the idea of mass production became popular, manufacturers and industrialists of every kind looked for new areas in which to apply its methods. Henry Ford tried with mixed success to grow and process soybeans using mass production methods, turning them into products ranging from food to plastics and fabrics. Foster Gunnison considered himself the Henry Ford of housing because he built prefabricated houses on an assembly line beginning in the 1930s. Many furniture makers also tried mass production methods, but they did not work well for houses or furniture. Tastes for these kind of commodities were highly personal, and once bought, they were held onto for a long time. Henry Ford and others believed that mass production would save the world and move into every facet of life, but it became clear that it was not suitable for building everything.

Many people were suspicious of mass production. It arose at a time when workers were leaving small towns and farms to work in the more anonymous environment of the big city. Many saw mass production as a reflection of this loss of individuality. Some critics saw it as a cause as well. In a mass production economy, everyone bought products that were exactly the same. And the workers who made these products were, in the view of these critics, little more than slaves to machines, doing the same thing all day, everyday. Mass production was seen by some as a symbol of all that was wrong with the world. It was criticized by Aldous Huxley in his 1932 novel, Brave New World and by filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times from 1936.

Defenders of mass production retorted that the high wages paid by mass production factories meant that workers could afford more products themselves. They pointed out that mass production created a great number of useful things that more people could afford. Therefore, they said, it improved peoples lives.

For most people, the doubts about mass production, which intensified during the Great Depression, were swept away by World War II. Mass production created incredible volumes of equipment for the war effort. Most manufacturers switched production to war materiel. Many car factories retooled, and began to make airplane or tank engines. Using mass production methods, some factories turned out tens of thousands of guns per month, more than the entire country produced in a year before beginning the uniformity system. Meanwhile the cost of building some weapons dropped to as little as 20% of the prewar cost.

Interchangability of parts had become a basic law of manufacturing. During the war smaller factories often made just one part, which was combined at a second factory with parts from many other factories. At the same time, part sizes were becoming more specific. The holes in engine blocks often had to be precise to within thousandths of an inch. Such engineering and production advances were unprecedented, but as the war demonstrated, mass production also made mass destruction possible.

Mass production today

Mass production has become far more sophisticated than at its inception. To increase productivity, managers have focused on planning and scheduling. Actual production has become a carefully managed flow of parts, materials, and employees. Sales and marketing have become part of production, enabling management to know how many copies of a product to make.

One of the most important innovations is just in time production. Invented in Japan, the process requires detailed, predictable transportation and manufacturing schedules. Materials required for production arrive just in time to be used, while products are

KEY TERMS

Assembly line A sequence of workers, machines and parts down which an incomplete product passes, each worker performing a procedure, until the product is assembled.

Interchangeability Parts so similar that they can be switched between different machines or products and the machines or products will still work.

Machine tool A machine used for cutting or shaping parts.

Uniformity system A method for building products out of interchangeable parts that arose in the United States during the early nineteenth century.

manufactured just in time to be shipped to their destination. This process cuts down on costly storage in warehouses, and prevents obsolete products from building up.

Computers have played an important role in planning and keeping complicated schedules that may involve thousands of people and parts. They help figure out production flow as well, keeping track of how much time different tasks take on the factory floor, and how much space they require.

In some ways, mass production has become so sophisticated that it is no longer true mass production. Many products come with a variety of options, and customers can choose any combination desired. When buying a computer from some manufacturers, for example, customers can specify the size and make of the hard drive, how much memory they want and other details. Many theorists see a time in the near future when clothes are customized too. People would have their measurements taken, and when they order clothes, the clothes would be cut to their precise size by lasers at the clothes factory. The product would be created by specialized labor with the aid of machines, each shirt or pair of pants would be made using the same process, but by virtually any definition, this no longer would be mass production.

Resources

BOOKS

Hindle, Brooke, and Steven Lubar. Engines of Change. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Press, 1986.

Scott M. Lewis

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Mass Production

Mass Production

What It Means

Mass production is the term used to describe the manufacture, usually by machines, of products in large quantities. When a type of product, such as a toy, is mass-produced, each example of the product is made exactly the same, with the same parts and materials, using the same methods. Automobiles, household appliances, clothing, and shoes are just a few examples of mass-produced goods.

Mass production of a good often involves the use of many different automated machines, which carry out a series of short, repetitive tasks. In the mass production of athletic shoes, for example, one machine stitches together the pieces that form the upper part of the shoe. Another machine punches out the holes for laces. Then a different machine molds the upper part of the shoe and attaches it to the sole.

The development of mass production meant that manufacturers were able to produce more products than ever before, both quickly and inexpensively. This translated into a lower cost to the consumer. Mass-produced goods are not only cheaper to the consumer, they are also consistent in quality and more plentiful than non-mass produced goods. The mass production of food, clothing, computers, and other goods has played a vital role in improving the standard of living worldwide.

When Did It Begin?

The first machines that allowed for mass production, called machine tools, were developed in Britain in the mid-eighteenth century. Precision lathes, measuring instruments, and planers were examples of these tools. They allowed workers to make many examples of one product, such as a piece of furniture, to the same size and material specifications.

In 1776 Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723–90) developed the concept of division of labor, which is crucial to mass production. With division of labor, machines or laborers work on different parts of the product, instead of one machine or laborer making the entire product. The concepts of mass production quickly took root in the United States, where U.S. inventor Eli Whitney (1765–1825) developed the concept of interchangeable parts to make guns for the U.S. government. Until then guns had been made by hand, and each one was unique. Whitney designed a new gun and the machines to make it. His machines produced many identical (or interchangeable) parts, and the parts were then put together by workers on an assembly line, a concept also developed by Whitney. Each finished gun was exactly identical.

In the early twentieth century, U.S. industrialist Henry Ford (1863–1947) introduced the assembly-line method into the factories of his Ford Motor Company. Auto parts were delivered to workers by moving hooks and overhead chains. Each worker was given only one job. Ford sold more than 15 million of his Model T automobiles in the United States. His success in mass-producing automobiles foretold how much the production method would change the manufacture of products.

More Detailed Information

Mass production has brought many benefits to manufacturing. Mass production minimizes what is known as nonproductive effort. For example, a furniture maker who makes tables in his small workshop must use many different tools many separate times to finish a single table. In a factory that mass-produces tables, each worker repeats one or two tasks using the same tool to perform the same or similar operations on a steady flow of products moving past him on the assembly line. Workers do not waste time on nonproductive effort, such as moving to different parts of the factory to locate or prepare materials and tools. Thus, the time it takes to mass-produce the furniture is much less than if a worker were making the table by hand on his own.

Mass production also limits human error to some extent. Since most operations in mass production are carried out by automated machinery or robots, the chances of workers making errors are reduced. And because humans take on much less of the work in a plant using mass production, the company spends less money paying wages.

Although it may seem like most all products can be mass-produced, there are several criteria which help producers understand whether it is economical to mass-produce a particular product. Most importantly, there must be a large enough number of prospective consumers to warrant the investment involved in mass production, since the machinery used in mass production is costly. There must also be a long-term demand for the product, as mass-production methods are most economical with long production runs. The product must also be able to be constructed using standardized equipment and machinery, and the construction must be able to be broken down into relatively simple steps. If any of these conditions cannot be met, then the production of the good is not well suited to mass-production methods. Moreover, many consumers seek custom-made or one-of-a-kind goods, such as handmade furniture or clothing, and they constitute a significant market whose needs cannot be answered by mass-produced goods.

Recent Trends

During the twentieth century and early years of the twenty-first century in the United States, the middle class and its wages have grown dramatically. More than ever before, many Americans have significant discretionary income, or money that can be spent on goods and services they want, not need. Modern lifestyles and consumerism, or the emphasis on buying material goods as a way to become happy or fulfilled, have increased the demand for mass-produced products. Megastores, such as Wal-Mart and Costco, offer consumers an abundance of inexpensive mass-produced products.

Even as the demand for mass-produced products increases, more concern is being raised over assembly-line workers who feel frustrated and dehumanized by repetitive and monotonous work. In fact, studies have shown that workers who perform the same jobs repetitively become bored and are more likely to make errors in their work. Another concern is that many manufacturing facilities in newly industrialized countries have few or nonexistent protections for workers. This has brought about a greater international awareness of the experience of factory workers who are exploited or manipulated.

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Mass Production

Mass production

Mass production is an entire system of manufacturing products that uses specialized labor, machinery, the smooth and logical flow of materials, and an assembly line to turn out large volumes of the same product at the lowest possible cost. The fullest expression of mass production was probably found at the Ford Motor Company in the early years of the twentieth century, when hundreds of thousands of Model Ts were produced a year, all exactly the same.


Predecessors to mass production

The principals of mass production grew out of manufacturing techniques that were already widespread in the United States. Called "the American system" or the "uniformity system," these techniques called for goods made of interchangeable parts. This meant that the cost of parts went down, but it was expensive to set up an interchangeable parts system.

Initially the uniformity system was most important in the manufacture of military equipment and clocks, both of which were built from many small parts that had to be made carefully. The United States government wanted to build weapons of high quality cheaply and swiftly, and make the parts uniform so that they could be quickly repaired during a battle. The process began at the end of the 1700s. At that time, while two rifles might look the same, any given part from one probably would not fit into the other. Guns were instead made one at a time by skilled craftsmen.

Guns required parts to be made with great accuracy . The federal government financed the initial attempts to use interchangeable parts. Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin, began the task around 1798. The parts of his muskets became more standardized but they were not really interchangeable. New equipment was invented that made parts with greater precision, and a system was created to ensure interchangeability. Patterns were used to make the parts, and a series of standardized tools were then used to measure them. Inspectors were sent to different arms factories. As a result, by mid-century the parts made at one factory fit into a gun made at another. Previously, the parts made by one worker would not fit into a gun made by the person next to him.

Around 1800, clocks still were made one at a time by hand. As a result, they were so expensive that few people owned one. The demand for clocks increased as more people lived in cities and had tight work schedules. To make clocks more cheaply, manufacturers began using power machinery and dividing labor so that workers specialized in a few tasks. Patterns were used to make parts interchangeable. Using these techniques, over 80,000 wooden clocks were made in Connecticut in 1836—twice as many as were owned in all of the United States in 1800. Division of labor was further refined so that by the 1850s, 60 workers had a part in making each clock. At the same time, fewer skilled workers were required because more work was done by machine, and this saved money. The price of a clock dropped from $10 in 1800, to $1.50 about 60 years later.

The techniques used to manufacture clocks and guns spread to other industries. The industrial revolution was underway and an increasing number of products were in demand by business and individuals. The uniformity system was used in varying degrees to make sewing machines, bicycles and mechanized farm equipment. In each case, some fitting had to be done by specialists. No one had looked at the process as a whole and broken it down into small tasks arranged in the most efficient order possible.

Such ideas were in the air, however. In the 1880s and 1890s management theorist Frederick W. Taylor studied the motion of people at work. He believed that production could be made more efficient by seeing where time and motion were wasted, then designing better work methods.


Mass production begins at Ford

The various threads of mass production came together at the Ford Motor Co. in Highland Park, Michigan, from 1908 to 1915. Cars were a relatively new invention and were still too expensive for the average person. Many were too heavy or low powered to be practical. Henry Ford set out to produce a light, strong car for a reasonable price. His Model T, released in 1908, was designed to meet these goals. Ford's top engineers and mechanics had backgrounds in the uniformity system, making sewing machines and farm equipment. From the beginning, they adopted interchangeability of parts as a core idea.

After studying how to make cars in the most logical, simple way possible, Ford built a Model T factory between 1908 and 1910 that favored the sequential assembly of parts. Machine tools , which made the parts of the car, were designed to perform one specialized operation. One machine tool did nothing but drill 45 holes into the side of an engine block. The machine tools were placed at the point in the assembly sequence where they were used; previous manufacturers usually had grouped machine tools together by category.

By 1913, a finished Model T rolled out of the factory every 40 seconds. Production went from 14,000 in 1909 to 189,000 in 1913, while the price of a Model T dropped from $950 to $550. Contemporary observers were amazed by this level of productivity, but a final innovation was coming.


The assembly line

Initially groups of workers at Ford moved down a line of parts and sub-assemblies, each worker carrying out a specific task. But some workers and groups were faster or slower than others, and they often got in each other's way. So Ford and his technicians decided to move the work instead of the workers. If engines in need of assembly were moved by a conveyor belt, the speed of work would become standardized to the speed the conveyor belt moved.

The concept of the assembly line came from many places, including slaughterhouses, where they operated in reverse. An animal carcass, hung on a hook, would slide down an overhead rail, while different workers removed various cuts of meat. No one had applied this idea to manufacturing, however.

After months of experimenting with various lengths and rates of speed for the assembly line, Ford switched its factory to assembly line production in 1913. The amount of time required to built a car plummeted to about a third of what it had been, and production skyrocketed, reaching 585,000 Model Ts in 1916. Because the assembly line was so demanding on workers, many left. To avoid constantly hiring and training new workers, Ford began paying them $5 a day—a good wage at the time.


The spread and limits of mass production

Ford became the toast of the nation. Manufacturers of many types quickly became interested in Ford's methods. The company's manufacturing process was initially known as Fordism, before being called mass production in the 1920s. Soon other car manufacturers, as well as manufacturers ranging from household appliances to radios, were using variations on Ford's methods. Ford's system called for making one unchanging product. Each copy of a product was exactly the same, and customers didn't have any choices about the cars they wanted to buy. For the first 12 years of its production, the Model T was only available in black. However, by the time the 15 millionth Model T had been built in 1927, the basic design was 20 years old and the market was saturated. No one wanted to buy any more Model Ts and its sales were falling fast.

When one of Ford's rivals, General Motors, designed and expanded its own mass production system during the 1920s, it built it with a greater amount of flexibility. GM used general purpose machine tools that could be adapted quickly to design changes. It also built the parts that went into its cars at a variety of locations, rather than all in the same factory as at Ford. When GM switched from a four-cylinder engine to a six-cylinder engine, the company first perfected the equipment at a small experimental plant. It was then able to switch over the main engine plant in Flint, Michigan, to six-cylinder production in a mere three weeks. Other parts of GM's business continued with no interruption at all.

In contrast, when Ford switched from the dying Model T to the Model A in 1927, the entire factory had to be shut down for six months. Ford had become so good at producing one product, and had become so specialized, that the change to a new product threw the company into chaos. After this demonstration of the shortcomings of doing everything in one factory, Ford too became less centralized. Mass production clearly had needed more flexibility; now it had it.


Mass production and advertising

Mass production calls for mass consumption. Thus mass production helped create the modern advertising industry as manufacturers sought to make consumers buy their products. But what if everyone already had bought a car? Partly to give customers more choices, partly to give those who already owned a car a reason to buy another, in the 1920s GM began creating a new version of its cars each year. In the 1930s, Ford followed. While mass-production purists like Henry Ford felt this was a marketing gimmick more appropriate for clothes than cars, most consumers were happy to finally have more choice in what they bought. Further, the Model T had been designed purely to function well. Many found it ugly. The Model A was considered far more visually appealing. Industrial design became important in winning customers. Just because hundreds of thousands of copies of a product were made did not mean they had to be visually uninteresting.

Supporters and detractors of mass production

As the idea of mass production became popular, manufacturers and industrialists of every kind looked for new areas in which to apply its methods. Henry Ford tried with mixed success to grow and process soybeans using mass production methods, turning them into products ranging from food to plastics and fabrics. Foster Gunnison considered himself the "Henry Ford of housing" because he built pre-fabricated houses on an assembly line beginning in the 1930s. Many furniture makers also tried mass production methods, but they did not work well for houses or furniture. Tastes for these kind of commodities were highly personal, and once bought, they were held onto for a long time. Henry Ford and others believed that mass production would save the world and move into every facet of life, but it became clear that it was not suitable for building everything.

Many people were suspicious of mass production. It arose at a time when many people were leaving small towns and farms to work in the more anonymous environment of the big city. Many saw mass production as a reflection of this loss of individuality. Some critics saw it as a cause as well. In a mass production economy, everyone bought products that were exactly the same. And the workers who made these products were, in the view of these critics, little more than slaves to machines, doing the same thing all day, everyday. Mass production was seen by some as a symbol of all that was wrong with the world. It was criticized by Aldous Huxley in his 1932 novel, "Brave New World," and by filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin in "Modern Times," from 1936.

The defenders of mass production retorted that the high wages paid by mass-production factories meant that workers could afford more products themselves. They pointed out that mass production created a great number of useful things that more people could afford. Therefore, they said, it improved people's lives.

For most people, the doubts about mass production, which intensified during the Great Depression, were swept away by World War II. Mass production created incredible volumes of equipment for the war effort. Most manufacturers switched production to war materiel. Many car factories retooled, and began to make airplane or tank engines. Using mass production methods, some factories turned out tens of thousands of guns per month, more than the entire country produced in a year before beginning the uniformity system. Meanwhile the cost of building some weapons dropped to as little as 20% of the pre-war cost.

The interchangability of parts had become a basic law of manufacturing. During the war smaller factories often made just one part, which was combined at a second factory with parts from many other factories. At the same time, part sizes were getting more specific. The holes in engine blocks often had to be precise to within thousandths of an inch. The engineering and production advances were unprecedented, but as the war demonstrated, mass production also made mass destruction possible.


Mass production today

Mass production has become far more sophisticated than at its inception. To increase productivity, managers have focused on planning and scheduling. Actual production has become a carefully managed flow of parts, materials, and employees. Sales and marketing have become part of production, enabling management to know how many copies of a product to make.

One of the most important innovations is "just in time" production. Invented in Japan, the process requires detailed, predictable transportation and manufacturing schedules. Materials required for production arrive just in time to be used, while products are manufactured just in time to be shipped to their destination. This process cuts down on costly storage in warehouses, and prevents obsolete products from building up.

The emergence of computers has played an important role in planning and keeping complicated schedules that may involve thousands of people and parts. Computers help figure out production flow as well, keeping track of how much time different tasks take on the factory floor, and how much space they require.

In some ways, mass production has become so sophisticated that it is no longer true mass production. Many products come with a variety of options, and the customer can choose whatever combination of options he or she desires. When buying a computer from some manufacturers, for example, a customer can specify the size and make of the hard drive, how much memory they want and other details. Many theorists see a time in the near future when clothes are customized too. People would have their measurements taken, and when they order clothes, the clothes would be cut to their precise size by lasers at the clothes factory. The product would be created by specialized labor with the aid of machines, each shirt or pair of pants would be made using the same process, but by virtually any definition, this no longer would be mass production.


Resources

books

Hindle, Brooke, and Steven Lubar. Engines of Change. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Press, 1986.


Scott M. Lewis

KEY TERMS

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Assembly line

—A sequence of workers, machines and parts down which an incomplete product passes, each worker performing a procedure, until the product is assembled.

Interchangeability

—Parts that are so similar that they can be switched between different machines or products and the machines or products will still work.

Machine tool

—A machine used for cutting or shaping parts.

Uniformity system

—A method for building products out of interchangeable parts that arose in the United States during the early nineteenth century.

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