Read this article to learn about the production technique initiated by Henry Ford (founder of Ford Motors)!
This is a production process that was initiated by Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motors. Ford used this technique for manufacturing his Model T cars.
This later came to be known as mass production. The technique increased the production of cars besides drastically decreasing costs of production. Hence cars could be affordable for middle-class consumers in the USA, and later elsewhere (Rose 1994).
Earlier, a group of workers using their own tools would be engaged in the production process, while the foreman/supervisor would direct the work performed. In the automobile manufacturing industry, a group of workers would be engaged in putting together a car, which might take a few days.
Henry Ford thought of a new form of work organisation that would boost the production process. He was impressed by scientific management and adapted its techniques in building his model.
Mass production basically split up the production process into small parts. Instead of a group of workers putting together a car, Ford split these activities into smaller parts.
He used the assembly line as the means for putting together the different components to make the whole. The workers stood in a line, one next to the other, a conveyor belt ran in front of them and each worker had the components he had to attach to the machine.
The first worker (in the division that manufactured engines) would fit a component to the basic machine, and the conveyor belt would take this to the next worker, who in turn would fix another component. In this way, the machine would travel to each worker and at the end of the conveyor belt the final product would be ready.
Ford used the time-and-motion approach of scientific management. In order to achieve the highest degree of efficiency, the worker had to control his movements which were repetitive and performed according to the pace of the conveyor belt or the needs of production. If production were to be increased, the worker’s actions had to be faster.
The work on the assembly line was designed in a way that though workers worked close to each other, they did not have any physical or verbal communication among themselves for that would distract them and reduce their pace. The only communication they had was with the supervisor who instructed them to increase or lower the pace of work and who also reprimanded a worker for not keeping pace with the others. The worker was thus reduced to being a machine. He could not use his discretion while at work and he had to simply follow orders.
Ford realised that assembly-line work could be monotonous for the workers. He therefore compensated this with high wages. His workers were paid US$ 5 a day when the prevailing wage rate was in the range of US$ 2-2.5. This did work in his favour because he was able to achieve higher levels of productivity, which in turn compensated for the high labour costs. Ford thus provided workers with high wages, and consequently rising levels of consumption, in exchange for an intensified work regime.
There were other factors too that were related. Fords method of production could be called vertical assimilation. He ensured that all inputs required for producing his cars were a part of the production process. He bought coal and iron ore mines and steel plants to process these so that he was ensured that there was a steady flow of raw materials for his production.
He also reorganised the marketing and advertising of his products. Since these were mass-produced, thus less expensive than the other cars in the market, advertising had to target a larger segment of consumers rather than just the elite, as done by the other manufacturers.
Ford achieved tremendous success in his business and forced his competitors and all other manufacturers to switch to his techniques. Soon, America became a land for assembly-line manufacturing for all products.
Fordism: An Assessment:
The term ‘Fordism’ was coined in 1936 by Antonio Gramsci, an Italian intellectual who was general secretary of the Italian Communist Party during WWII. Italy was then under Mussolini’s Fascist party and he tried to regiment factory workers on the lines of mass production.
Gramsci identified Fordism as a hegemonic form of industrial organisation. According to him, Fordism ensured that the workers were dominated by the capitalists through control over wages and also over the labour process.
Both Fordism and Taylorism have their strengths and weaknesses. Both revolutionised production and also ensured that there was greater discipline in the workforce. These techniques proved that extensive physical labour is not needed to increase production.
A worker can be physically more productive not by increasing energy levels but by preserving them. Another common aspect is that the two systems did not lay stress merely on increasing productivity but also on adequately rewarding workers for doing good work.
The assembly line in effect changed the nature of work through its extensive division of labour. The worker was engaged in just one act of production and had little connection with the end product. In the early days of automobile production, workers knew how many cars they had manufactured; the assembly line worker in the Ford factory, however, could not tell how many cars he had produced as, far from being associated in the total production process, he was engaged in only one aspect of production.
This had other implications. Under assembly-line production, workers were no longer specialists in the true sense; their ‘specialisation’ now lay in taking orders from their supervisors and translating them into work. Hence there could be no categories such as steel workers, textile workers or auto workers. A worker in a steel plant could also work in a shoe factory, because in both cases, they were performing only one action.
At the same time, work became more mechanical and involved only physical labour. Under assembly-line production, work was carried out at such a fast pace that workers did not have time to think—they just performed their work mechanically. This was bound to lead to frustration even if wages were increased periodically. In fact most of the labour unrest in the post-WWII period was attributed to the nature of work in the factory.
In the 1970s and 80s, Fordism was replaced by ‘post-Fordism which introduced a degree of flexibility among workers. This became known as flexible specialisation. In the following section, we shall see how another system developed to cope with the failures of scientific management.