At the dawn of the automotive industry, cars were assembled one at a time by skilled laborers, generally from components supplied by specialist companies. Such practices were costly, meaning that automobiles were only of interest to those of considerable wealth. The assembly line reduced production costs and democratized the automobile, and a new permanent exhibit at the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) Museum in Hershey, Pennsylvania, seeks to educate visitors about the process and benefits brought about by improved manufacturing.
The Assembly Line Experience, constructed by Exhibit Graphics Interior in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, allows guests to experience firsthand the differences between one-at-a-time manufacturing and assembly line manufacturing. Visitors first build a wooden car on their own, then work as part of a team to demonstrate the added efficiency of simplified and streamlined tasks.
The exhibit also touches on the history of the assembly line, at least within the automotive manufacturing realm. Though Henry Ford is often associated with the automobile assembly line, it was Ransom E. Olds who first implemented this concept, using it to reduce manufacturing costs (and, ultimately, selling price) of the 1901-’04 Curved Dash Olds. Henry Ford began using the assembly line concept later, influenced not by Olds but by the “disassembly line” used by meat packers Swift & Company to butcher hogs and cattle.
Ford does deserve credit for implementing the moving assembly line in his Highland Park Plant in October 1913, which reduced the production of a Model T into 84 steps, cutting assembly time from 12 hours to just 93 minutes. The increased productivity and reduced labor cost allowed Ford to drop the price of the Model T from $850 to $300, making the automobile attainable to a broader range of consumers.
Improved manufacturing techniques eventually allowed automakers to do away with the wooden frames that typically supported early bodywork, but it wasn’t until 1935 that General Motors introduced its “turret top” all-steel roof (though Edward Budd constructed an all-steel body in 1912, it was not practical to produce at the time). The industry soon copied GM’s Fisher Body, and all-steel construction became the norm.
Robotics was the next big leap in assembly line efficiency, and when GM retooled its Lordstown, Ohio, plant in 1969, it installed a series of Unimate robots to spot-weld unibodies. Production increased to 110 cars per hour, over twice what similarly sized plants could achieve without robotic assistance, and the use of such computer-controlled manufacturing tools soon spread throughout the industry. The “next big thing” appears to be 3D printing, which today allows for rapid (and accurate) prototyping, but may soon allow for on-demand production of parts from a variety of materials.
The Assembly Line Experience is located in the AACA Museum’s Main Gallery, and may be booked for groups by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the museum and upcoming exhibits (including the Hemmings Classic Car-inspired Detroit Underdogs, which opens on May 13, visit AACAMuseum.org.