Hundred years after its invention, the assembly line needs to be reinvented.


When Henry Ford’s Highland Park, MI, assembly line started moving some 100 years ago , it produced “six radically different versions of the Model T, ranging from a 2-seat coupe to a 6-seat Town Car,” wrote Wards. A century later, Ford plans to manufacture an average of four different vehicles per plant by 2017. This is celebrated as progress, and as a plan to make Ford’s “manufacturing lines more flexible than ever,” as the Detroit News gushes.

It sounds like progress when you consider that Ford currently averages about 3¼ models or model variants per assembly facility. 100 years after the invention of the assembly line, Ford’s production system has lost – statistically – about half its flexibility. Still, it is far ahead of GM and Chrysler, whose plants usually were “dedicated to building large volumes of a single model,” as Wards wrote.

When I came to the U.S. 30 years ago, I was shocked to see that most car factories were one model dinosaurs. When I left Germany in the eighties, many different models rolled off the same assembly line at Volkswagen. What’s more, even then most cars for the domestic market were built to order, assembled a la carte, according to the customer’s individual desires.

The same has been the norm in Japan for many decades. Go into a Japanese car dealership, and you notice a lack of cars, and an abundance of desks. The desks are for taking orders, the car is built to specifications and delivered a few weeks later.

Meanwhile in America, Wards says:

“Output was controlled by adjusting line rates or altering downtime and overtime hours, and excess inventory was reduced by routine incentive spending that moved less desirable vehicles through the dealerships. What was lost on the margins was made up in volume.”

Today, the differences between European, Asian and U.S. manufacturing methods are even greater. EU and Asian OEMs have invested heavily into kit architectures that make development cheaper and faster and manufacturing even more flexible. The U.S. auto industry is far behind in this regard. What’s less, the Detroit Three closed 25 plants between 2005 and 2010, and opened only 4 new ones, reducing capacity by 3.5 million units. The surging auto market strains the limited capacity. “General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC are hesitant to spend big on new domestic plants,” says The Nikkei. Instead, they focus on maximizing output by adding shifts and tweaking production processes. This is where they really could use the flexible production systems which their European and Asia peers had for decades