In 1908 Henry Ford began production of the Model T automobile. Based on his original Model A design first manufactured in 1903, the Model T took five years to develop. Its creation inaugurated what we know today as the mass production assembly line. This revolutionary idea was based on the concept of simply assembling interchangeable component parts. Prior to this time, coaches and buggies had been hand-built in small numbers by specialized craftspeople who rarely duplicated any particular unit. Ford's innovative design reduced the number of parts needed as well as the number of skilled fitters who had always formed the bulk of the assembly operation, giving Ford a tremendous advantage over his competition.
Ford's first venture into automobile assembly with the Model A involved setting up assembly stands on which the whole vehicle was built, usually by a single assembler who fit an entire section of the car together in one place. This person performed the same activity over and over at his stationary assembly stand. To provide for more efficiency, Ford had parts delivered as needed to each work station. In this way each assembly fitter took about 8.5 hours to complete his assembly task. By the time the Model T was being developed Ford had decided to use multiple assembly stands with assemblers moving from stand to stand, each performing a specific function. This process reduced the assembly time for each fitter from 8.5 hours to a mere 2.5 minutes by rendering each worker completely familiar with a specific task.
Ford soon recognized that walking from stand to stand wasted time and created jam-ups in the production process as faster workers overtook slower ones. In Detroit in 1913, he solved this problem by introducing the first moving assembly line, a conveyor that moved the vehicle past a stationary assembler. By eliminating the need for workers to move between stations, Ford cut the assembly task for each worker from 2.5 minutes to just under 2 minutes; the moving assembly conveyor could now pace the stationary worker. The first conveyor line consisted of metal strips to which the vehicle's wheels were attached. The metal strips were attached to a belt that rolled the length of the factory and then, beneath the floor, returned to the beginning area. This reduction in the amount of human effort required to assemble an automobile caught the attention of automobile assemblers throughout the world. Ford's mass production drove the automobile industry for nearly five decades and was eventually adopted by almost every other industrial manufacturer. Although technological advancements have enabled many improvements to modern day automobile assembly operations, the basic concept of stationary workers installing parts on a vehicle as it passes their work stations has not changed drastically over the years.
Although the bulk of an automobile is virgin steel, petroleum-based products (plastics and vinyls) have come to represent an increasingly large percentage of automotive components. The light-weight materials derived from petroleum have helped to lighten some models by as much as thirty percent. As the price of fossil fuels continues to rise, the preference for lighter, more fuel efficient vehicles will become more pronounced.
Introducing a new model of automobile generally takes three to five years from inception to assembly. Ideas for new models are developed to respond to unmet pubic needs and preferences. Trying to predict what the public will want to drive in five years is no small feat, yet automobile companies have successfully designed automobiles that fit public tastes. With the help of computer-aided design equipment, designers develop basic concept drawings that help them visualize the proposed vehicle's appearance. Based on this simulation, they then construct clay models that can be studied by styling experts familiar with what the public is likely to accept. Aerodynamic engineers also review the models, studying air-flow parameters and doing feasibility studies on crash tests. Only after all models have been reviewed and accepted are tool designers permitted to begin building the tools that will manufacture the component parts of the new model.
The automobile, for decades the quintessential American industrial product, did not have its origins in the United States. In 1860, Etienne Lenoir, a Belgian mechanic, introduced an internal combustion engine that proved useful as a source of stationary power. In 1878, Nicholas Otto, a German manufacturer, developed his four-stroke "explosion" engine. By 1885, one of his engineers, Gottlieb Daimler, was building the first of four experimental vehicles powered by a modified Otto internal combustion engine. Also in 1885, another German manufacturer, Carl Benz, introduced a three-wheeled, self-propelled vehicle. In 1887, the Benz became the first automobile offered for sale to the public. By 1895, automotive technology was dominated by the French, led by Emile Lavassor. Lavassor developed the basic mechanical arrangement of the car, placing the engine in the front of the chassis, with the crankshaft perpendicular to the axles.
In 1896, the Duryea Motor Wagon became the first production motor vehicle in the United States. In that same year, Henry Ford demonstrated his first experimental vehicle, the Quadricycle. By 1908, when the Ford Motor Company introduced the Model T, the United States had dozens of automobile manufacturers. The Model T quickly became the standard by which other cars were measured; ten years later, half of all cars on the road were Model Ts. It had a simple four-cylinder, twenty-horsepower engine and a planetary transmission giving two gears forward and one backward. It was sturdy, had high road clearance to negotiate the rutted roads of the day, and was easy to operate and maintain.
William S. Pretzer
All of the components that go into the automobile are produced at other sites. This means the thousands of component pieces that comprise the car must be manufactured, tested, packaged, and shipped to the assembly plants, often on the same day they will be used. This requires no small amount of planning. To accomplish it, most automobile manufacturers require outside parts vendors to subject their component parts to rigorous testing and inspection audits similar to those used by the assembly plants. In this way the assembly plants can anticipate that the products arriving at their receiving docks are Statistical Process Control (SPC) approved and free from defects.
Once the component parts of the automobile begin to be assembled at the automotive factory, production control specialists can follow the progress of each embryonic automobile by means of its Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), assigned at the start of the production line. In many of the more advanced assembly plants a small radio frequency transponder is attached to the chassis and floor pan. This sending unit carries the VIN information and monitors its progress along the assembly process. Knowing what operations the vehicle has been through, where it is going, and when it should arrive at the next assembly station gives production management personnel the ability to electronically control the manufacturing sequence. Throughout the assembly process quality audit stations keep track of vital information concerning the integrity of various functional components of the vehicle.
This idea comes from a change in quality control ideology over the years. Formerly, quality control was seen as a final inspection process that sought to discover defects only after the vehicle was built. In contrast, today quality is seen as a process built right into the design of the vehicle as well as the assembly process. In this way assembly operators can stop the conveyor if workers find a defect. Corrections can then be made, or supplies checked to determine whether an entire batch of components is bad. Vehicle recalls are costly and manufacturers do everything possible to ensure the integrity of their product before it is shipped to the customer. After the vehicle is assembled a validation process is conducted at the end of the assembly line to verify quality audits from the various inspection points throughout the assembly process. This final audit tests for properly fitting panels; dynamics; squeaks and rattles; functioning electrical components; and engine, chassis, and wheel alignment. In many assembly plants vehicles are periodically pulled from the audit line and given full functional tests. All efforts today are put forth to ensure that quality and reliability are built into the assembled product.
The development of the electric automobile will owe more to innovative solar and aeronautical engineering and advanced satellite and radar technology than to traditional automotive design and construction. The electric car has no engine, exhaust system, transmission, muffler, radiator, or spark plugs. It will require neither tune-ups nor—truly revolutionary—gasoline. Instead, its power will come from alternating current (AC) electric motors with a brushless design capable of spinning up to 20,000 revolutions/minute. Batteries to power these motors will come from high performance cells capable of generating more than 100 kilowatts of power. And, unlike the lead-acid batteries of the past and present, future batteries will be environmentally safe and recyclable. Integral to the braking system of the vehicle will be a power inverter that converts direct current electricity back into the battery pack system once the accelerator is let off, thus acting as a generator to the battery system even as the car is driven long into the future.
The growth of automobile use and the increasing resistance to road building have made our highway systems both congested and obsolete. But new electronic vehicle technologies that permit cars to navigate around the congestion and even drive themselves may soon become possible. Turning over the operation of our automobiles to computers would mean they would gather information from the roadway about congestion and find the fastest route to their instructed destination, thus making better use of limited highway space. The advent of the electric car will come because of a rare convergence of circumstance and ability. Growing intolerance for pollution combined with extraordinary technological advancements will change the global transportation paradigm that will carry us into the twenty-first century.
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— Rick Bockmiller