Ford has always been at the leading edge of new technology.

During the past century, Ford engineers have made numerous contributions to the world of industrial automation. The technology behind many production tools that people take for granted today, such as conveyors, electropneumatic screwdrivers, flexible fixtures, high-speed machine tools, stamping presses, welding robots, computer-numeric controls and machine vision systems, were developed and perfected in Ford Motor Co. plants. In fact, the words "automation" and "mass production" trace their roots to Ford.

Although he didn't have a formal engineering education, Henry Ford made sure he surrounded himself with people who shared his fascination with mechanization and automation. As a child, Ford was very inquisitive and often probed the workings of mechanical objects. Ford often made his own tools, such as a screwdriver out of a shingle nail.

Watches captivated Ford so much that he seriously considered a career in watchmaking. "Simply by glancing at a mechanism, Henry could comprehend the interdependence of its parts, pursuing a line of reasoning through gears, ratchets, wheels, pinions and levers," says Russ Banham, author of The Ford Century (Artisan).

Ford established his auto company in 1903 with two lathes, two drill presses, a planer, a saw, a grinding wheel and a forge. Within 10 years, Ford's factories featured some of the most sophisticated production tools in the world. By 1914, the year the Model T was first assembled on a moving line, 15,000 specialized machine tools had been installed at a cost of $2.8 million. At the changeover to Model A production in 1927, Ford boasted 45,000 machine tools worth $45 million.

According to John Prentiss, a New York investment banker who was experienced in the valuation of early automakers, "The Ford machinery was the best in the world. No other manufacturer had sufficient quantity to go into special machinery as Ford did."

Ironically, the year Ford set up shop, a number of innovations in specialized machine tools for the automobile industry were introduced in the United States. Innovations in 1903 included a multiple drill press to work cylinder blocks and heads, a machine to grind cylinders, a lathe to turn camshafts and a vertical turret lathe specially designed to turn flywheels.

During the last 100 years, Ford Motor Co. has been an early user of new technology, equipment and tools. Ford often adopted new machines faster than other automakers. In fact, some production equipment was designed and built in-house. For instance, Ford's tool department designed fixtures and gauges that transformed general-purpose machines into specialized ones. The special fixtures made insertion of a part into the machine automatic; the worker had to make no adjustments at all.

As soon as a more efficient machine or process was found, old equipment was ripped out and replaced. "It doesn't matter what the equipment cost to install or how long it has been in operation," boasted one plant manager in the early days of the company. "We tear out whole departments to make one or two new changes."

Ford engineers were constantly at work redesigning jigs and fixtures, and planning new machine tools or fixing old ones, to achieve higher production. According to Carl Emde, a Ford engineer who joined the company in 1906, the universal goal was "to reduce hand labor, to give the operations more speed and to conserve floor space."

For instance, multiple drill presses increased one man's productivity by eight to twelve times. The vertical turret lathe meant that one worker could produce 60 flywheels per day instead of the 25 previously machined on a regular lathe.

"A great part of the steady rise in Ford output was attributable to superior tool steel and improved machinery," says Allan Nevins, co-author of a landmark book entitled Ford: The Times, The Man, The Company (Charles Scribner's Sons). For example, he points out that Ford's "assembly conveyors carried 180 motor blocks an hour in 1925 as against 120 in 1919. The difference was largely supplied by mechanical aids. In this period many common tools were changed first to the 'speed' and then to the 'power' type.

"A certain operation might first be accomplished by a socket-wrench with a T-form handle," adds Nevins. "This would be replaced by a speed-wrench having a knob for one hand and a crank for another; it could be turned at enhanced speed, with less energy. It would be replaced by an electric-driven wrench unit, suspended from above and counterweighted for ease of manipulation—a common power tool in the Ford plants. The operator now had only to apply the socket to the bolt head and touch the grips, spinning the shaft. Speed increased again, but the job became far easier."

A Mechanical Marvel

After Ford's revolutionary Highland Park factory opened in 1910, it quickly became a mechanical wonder of the world. It was equipped with the best tools procurable. "Highland Park was full of arresting novelties," says Nevins. "Old machines were ruthlessly discarded as fast as they could be improved. Sometimes a simple improvement made an astonishing difference."

A wheel-painting machine allowed Ford to turn out 2,000 painted, varnished and dried wheels a day, with half as many hands as other plants would have needed for the work. "Seizing six long rows of wheels, it dipped them into a paint vat, rotated them rapidly to throw off surplus paint and distribute the liquid evenly, and deposited them for drying," says Nevins.

"Much more remarkable were a double-end machine tool for pressing tubes in radiator fins; another special machine tool for curling the heads of gasoline tanks two at a time; and a filleting machine for crankshaft bearings.

"The radiator assembly machine in use by 1913 was also unique," says Nevins. "Most radiator makers worked slowly with much hand labor; the Ford device made it possible to put together 45 or 50 tubes and fins in a single operation."

"Visitors were also shown with pride a four-way machine which simultaneously drilled 45 holes in the cylinder block from four different angles, thus securing greater accuracy in drilling, avoiding the loss of misdrilled castings, reducing enormously the time used in machining the cylinder block, and saving floor space."

"After the decision to build only one model came experimentation with, and introduction of, automatic specialized machines," says Lindy Biggs, a history professor at Auburn University and author of The Rational Factory (Johns Hopkins University Press). "Intense mechanism in the shops was fundamental to the success of Fordism. Its importance stemmed from the fact that individual machines were equipped with highly specialized fixtures and jigs that allowed the worker to insert the part to be worked on without making adjustments.

"Some machines were standard, general-purpose machines fitted with special jigs by Ford men. Others, like the multiple screwdriving machine, were specially designed by Ford engineers. The screwdriving machine allowed the worker to throw the screws at random into the pans of hoppers at the top of the magazines. The machine placed and installed the screws, leaving the worker nothing to do but turn the handle to move the work through the machine. While the worker operated the machine, his helper removed the previous piece from the rack where it fell when completed."

"Speed became the production priority, and use of time a predominant concern of Henry Ford and his engineers," explains Biggs.

Under the guidance of production chief, Charles Sorensen, Ford installed numerous overhead conveyors to bring materials up to the assembly lines. For instance, Sorenson installed belt conveyors that took radiator parts, carried them past a bench line of assemblers, and automatically transferred the assemblies to another belt at right angles which passed them under the hands of solderers.

"Everywhere in Highland Park by the end of 1914 continuous motion was the rule; a kinetic spirit pulsed through the plant; its circulatory system was as elaborate and vital as that of the human body," says Nevins. "Moving assemblies were geared precisely with lines of component supply. This permitted a close spacing of machines to save lifting, and a minute subdivision of operations."

Other conveyors were soon introduced throughout the plant, which, by 1915, boasted 50 miles of belting and 1.5 miles of conveyor track. According to Nevins, the most elaborate was in the motor assembling room. "An endless belt installed close to the roof took motor components, swept them along, and delivered them as wanted through gravity slides to two widely separated lines of motor assemblers," says Nevins.

Productive People

Ford Motor Co. employed numerous draftsmen and skilled toolmakers who were constantly devising new machines and equipment that would increase production. "Emphasis was laid on ceaseless experimentation and improvement," claims Nevins. "No idea was too bold. The engineers of the Ford company worked in close collaboration with [machine builders], making many experiments in machine tools."

"A large force was constantly employed in what might be called the creative preparations for mass production; that is, in equipping the factory to carry it on," says Nevins. In 1914, Ford employed "59 men hunched over desks with triangles, compasses and slide rules, making drawings for machine tools and fixtures; 40 men busy with hammer, saw and chisel making patterns; and nearly 500 men at Highland Park, and 300 in outside machine shops, forging, casting and building tools.

"A regiment of men, in short, was constantly storming the bastions of old-style factory methods," adds Nevins. "While the work was proceeding on installations supposedly new, the Ford shops were continuously moving and replacing more than 500 machine tools to facilitate 'progressive production;' that is, to improve work sequence and save labor."

"By 1915 they had turned out over 140 specialized machine tools and several thousand specialized dies, jigs and fixtures," says James Flink, a professor of comparative culture at the University of California-Irvine and author of The Automobile Age (MIT Press). "Machine tools became larger, more powerful, more specialized, and semiautomatic or automatic.

"A prime example was a special drilling machine that drilled 45 holes simultaneously in four sides of a Model T cylinder block and was equipped with an automatic stop and reverse," adds Flink. "The cylinder block was positioned by a special jig, so all the operator had to do was pull the starting lever and remove the finished block."

Henry Ford was extremely proud of his employees' innovative ideas. "About 90 percent of our equipment is standard, and the conversion into a single purpose machine is a matter of detail," explained Ford in his 1926 book, Today and Tomorrow (Productivity Press). "For instance, one operation calls for the piercing of a steel billet with a hole seven-eighths of an inch in diameter. Formerly this had been done by drilling, which was slow and costly, using many men and 30 drill presses, and wasting a lot of material.

"We substituted a standard disc piercing mill for which our men designed a new set of tools and made it do an entirely different job from the one for which it was originally intended. It is estimated that more than 500 miles of boring was done before this time- and labor-saving machine was developed."

Ford believed in the advantages of standardization. "Gears, keys, shafting, levers, pedals and other elements that make up a machine are all standardized," he explained, "and out of various combinations of these standardized parts even highly specialized machinery is built."

Bigger and Better

Ford and his engineers applied the early lessons learned at Highland Park to a bigger and better plant that opened in 1918: the Rouge. "The variety and completeness of mechanical equipment at the Rouge impressed even the technical experts," says Nevins. "In conveyors alone, it was a wonderland of devices. Gravity, belt, bucket, spiral, pendulum, gravity roller, overhead monorail, scenic railway and merry-go-round, elevating flight—the list was long both in range and adaptation to special purposes."

Ford rearranged machine layout to improve efficiency. At Highland Park, layout was constrained by the overhead line shafts that distributed mechanical power throughout the plant. "Few machines ran on individual motors in the Ford factories even as late as 1918," says Biggs. "Usually medium-sized electric engines provided power for a bank of machines."

Overhead conveyors were made possible after removal of the power transmission belting. "By eliminating belting, pulleys and overhead shafting, plant engineers opened the space above the machines," explains Biggs. "By maintaining a constant supply of parts for the worker, overhead conveyors did away with the necessity of storing parts at each workstation; more importantly, they eliminated most trucking of parts, thereby improving reliability and speed of production."

"The machine tools were as notable," says Biggs. "These comprised standard types adapted to Ford routines or redesigned, and a large number of special Ford designs. New uses of tools abounded at the Rouge, and the pace of the machines was increased far beyond the point believed desirable by conservative machine tool manufacturers."

Ford engineers experimented with transfer machines that could carry out several steps sequentially without human intervention. A two-station transfer machine was built in 1932. By 1936, the company was using a seven-station transfer machine to manufacture drivetrain components.

Conversion to Model A production in 1927 was a huge undertaking for Ford engineers. The switchover from Model T to Model A production cost $250 million and required Ford to close down its assembly lines for 6 months. During that time, assembly machinery was refined. For instance, Model T bodies had slid down a gravity drop onto chassis driven under them. With the Model A, a conveyor moved bodies into position over a chassis moving down an assembly line.

According to the Oct. 1, 1927, issue of Ford News, the most "radical advances have been made in the body department. Not a single body truck will be employed either in building a body or in transferring it to the assembly line. From first to last the body will be handled by conveyors, hoists, elevators and transfer tables."

The New York Times called the changes in machinery "sweeping" and "probably the biggest replacement of plant in the history of American industry." Ford purchased 4,500 new machine tools. Thousands of machines were scrapped, while others were refurbished or rebuilt.

Production of the Model A was marked by new manufacturing methods and assembly innovations. For instance, part of the retooling involved the introduction of the electric welding of parts by self-indexing automatic welders to replace the traditional bolting together of assemblies. "These automatic welding machines were the forerunners of Unimate robots," says Flick. Spot welding allowed one welder to do the work of eight riveters.

"The spread of automatic welding in body assembly was linked closely to the adoption of the closed steel body," adds Flink. "Automatic welding came into extensive use in 1928 at the Ford River Rouge plant in Model A production. Automatic welding reduced assembly costs while increasing the quality of the product. It produced strong and neat joints with greater speed and uniformity than previous assembly methods. The assembly consumed less material, and the resulting body was lighter."

Ford also turned to welding to make the rear axle assembly of the Model A both strong and light. "The new axle required the development of hot metal spinning machines (to form the bell part of the axle housings, which bolted to the differential housing) and electric welders (to weld two-piece differential housings together and to weld the axle-shaft housing flange to the axle housing)," says David Hounshell, a history professor at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh). "Production of the differential housing haunted Ford production men.

"When production got under way, they learned that hand-loaded, hand-operated resistance welders they had designed failed to produce uniformly satisfactory welds," explains Hounshell, author of From the American System to Mass Production (Johns Hopkins University Press). "Moreover, these machines achieved only about half of their expected per hour production, an extremely low rate considering that three men operated each welder.

"To improve the situation, during the early and trying stages of Model A production Ford welding engineers developed an automatic welder operated by a single man. This machine's output eventually satisfied demand for both uniformity and output."

In the late 1940s, Ford Motor Co. was the birthplace of automation. "In the postwar period the scarcity of labor, the rise in real wages and high consumer demand encouraged experiments with manufacturing processes which employed conveyors, compressed air, hydraulic power and electrical devices to automate certain functions," says Nevins.

The Birth of Automation

In April 1947, the company's vice president of manufacturing, Delmar Harder, created the Automation Department. "By the diligent efforts of Ford publicity men, and his own impressive accomplishments, Harder came to be known as 'the father of automation,'" says Nevins.

Early automation applications were described this way: "Where previously, in the course of producing a unit, manual work supplemented each mechanical performance, the entire process becomes mechanized. Electronic controls built into the machines also inspect the work at various stages and approve it or correct it."

The Ford Automation Department started with five people, but within a year, it employed 50. It began its work on valves and valve-guide bushings, then automated the manufacture of pistons, then coils and wheels, and then frames and rear axles.

"The Automation Department at first had to work in plants not built for automation," says Nevins. "It was forced to redesign tools and alter layouts. In its first year and a half the department approved designs for more than 500 devices, costing in aggregate $3 million. It found that on average production increased 20 percent."

Ford engineers began work in 1949 on the first factories built for extensive use of automation: the Buffalo Stamping Plant and the Cleveland Engine Plant and Foundry. The Buffalo plant, the first to be completed, began production in the fall of 1950. The Cleveland Engine Plant began production in September 1951.

The new factories featured "iron hand" devices that would automatically load and unload transfer machines and stamping presses making body parts and components made from sheet metal. In addition, they carried out other functions, such as inspection, gauging and weighing, that traditionally had been done by humans.

"What made the Cleveland Engine Plant so interesting to contemporaries was the way in which Ford had linked these transfer machines together by automatic conveying equipment such that little human assistance was necessary for conveying, loading or unloading work in process," says Hounshell. "Handling devices allowed parallel or multiple machining tasks to be fed automatically, thus achieving balance in machining capabilities.

"All these automatic conveyance devices were controlled by a hard-wired control panel of telephone-type relays—an electromechanical 'brain.' The system included a series of interlocks to ensure correct conveyance and feeding of parallel lines. Assembly operations at the plant also relied extensively upon automated conveyance systems, which with their power-and-free capability allowed for greater flexibility than the automated equipment in the machining areas."

In the machining process, 41 in-line, transfer-type machines comprising two basic lines were linked in a continuous process 1,200 feet long. Manual handling of the engine block was necessary only once, at the loading point. With the old method, 150 separate machines would have been required, each with a worker.

By 1954, the automated engine plant was touted as a big success. The facility was producing both the Ford-6 and the Mercury V-8 overhead valve engines. Automation reduced direct labor minutes by 49 percent and required 17 percent less floor space than traditional assembly methods.

Despite widespread concern from labor unions, Ford discharged no one for technological reasons. In fact, Ford claimed in 1954 that it had added 50,000 workers to its payroll since creating the Automation Department.

In the April 1955 issue of Harper’s magazine, management guru Peter Drucker hailed the application of automation to automobile manufacturing as "a major economic and technological change, a change as great as Henry Ford ushered in with the first mass production plant 50 years ago."

"Everywhere the extension of automation brought lower costs, higher quality and greater safety, and its success gave Ford an advantage over its competitors," says Nevins. Numerous journalists hailed the automated Cleveland plant as "revolutionary" and compared it to the manufacturing technology advancements made at Highland Park 40 years earlier.