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The development and history of the assembly line is considered one of the most important events in the evolution of manufacturing. The process, which involves the sequential assembly of a finished product in an efficient, continuously moving line, greatly replaced traditional craftsmanship methods of assembly. Although the history of the assembly line is most often associated with American entrepreneur Henry Ford, the beginnings of the method date back considerably farther, to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.
As humans developed machine technology, the concept of efficient assembly became a natural interest in manufacturing. Prior to the assembly line, manufacturing depended on the skilled hands of a craftsman, who could take raw material and turn it into a finished product, completing each step on his or her own. This method required considerable training and expertise, and allowed the creation of only one item at a time. While hand-crafted items might be valuable and artistic, their production was rarely efficient or capable of meeting mass production demand.
The influences that lead to Ford's development of the modern assembly line came from a variety of innovative sources. Meat packing plants in the American Midwest were notable for their “disassembly lines,” in which workers and machines systematically dissected slaughtered animals for their meat. Early versions of the line were adopted in factories in the United Kingdom and United States, to manage the mass producing machines of the Industrial Revolution. Gunsmiths Samuel Colt and Eli Whitney may also have played a part in the history of the assembly line, but introducing the ideas of divided labor lines and interchangeable mechanical parts.
Possibly the best known moment in the history of the assembly line is Ford's introduction of the moving manufacturing line. Used to produce the famous Model T cars of the early 20th century, the modern line divided labor into distinct segments, so that each worker needed to master just one task. Installing a conveyor belt, the line allowed the pieces to be assembled from beginning to finish in one smooth process, using relatively unskilled labor and cranking out finished automobiles in a set amount of time. In addition to speeding production time and requiring less training, Ford famously touted the moving assembly line as a means for workers to earn more, since factories could pay higher wages as production costs decreased.
The history of the assembly line does not simply end with Ford's famed invention, however. While the process revolutionized manufacturing throughout the world, problems became apparent with the system. The tedious and repetitive motions of assembly line jobs are believed by many to be dangerous to both physical and mental health. Advancements in technology have led to the opportunity for automated assembly lines, where the bulk of the work is done by machines, which can reduce the physical and mental strain for workers, but may also result in fewer jobs.
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