The first assembly line was set up in the automobile industry at the beginning of the 20th century. An early version of the assembly line was used by Ransom Eli Olds starting in 1901 in the production of an automobile known as the Curved Dash Olds. Later, this first assembly line concept was improved by the use of the conveyor belt in the mass production of cars by Ford. The first assembly line using a conveyor belt was set up in the Ford Highland Park plant in Michigan, and it enabled the company to drastically reduce assembly time and production costs.
The introduction of the first assembly line solved the problem of wasted time caused by workers having to fetch and transport parts to the car on which they were working. In the moving assembly line, the car moved along the belt to the workers, who could stay in their position and carry out work on each car with the parts on hand. This also meant more specialization on particular tasks by each assembly line worker. Ford was able to boast that everything in the factory moved, whether on the conveyor belt, suspended from overhead chains or at times simply by the force of gravity. The workers were spared the tasks of fetching, lifting and carrying.
Henry Ford did not arrive at the concept of the moving assembly line overnight, but the method was developed over some years. The idea of the moving belt is said to have come to him while watching a grain conveyor belt in a mill. To arrange the layout of the assembly line, the process of making a car had to be broken down into a number of distinct tasks. Ford used the services of a time and motion expert to observe the actions of workers and establish the time required for each task on the assembly line.
Another important concept involved in ensuring a successful assembly line was the standardization of parts. For the moving assembly line to work, any part must be capable of being fitted in any of the cars. This meant that the parts could no longer be made by hand. Greater precision was needed, and this required the use of improved machinery and cutting tools in their production.
The main problem resulting from the introduction of the moving assembly line was that workers were prone to boredom and frustration. Their work consisted of single repetitive tasks that involved relatively little creativity. The moving assembly line also imposed constant pressure on each worker to perform the same task in the required time throughout the day. On the positive side, the reduced production time and decreased costs meant that the workers could be paid higher wages.