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What is an Assembly Line?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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An assembly line is a type of industrial production in which prefabricated, interchangeable parts are used to assemble a finished product. The most basic assembly system consists of a simple conveyor belt which carries the product, such as a toy, through a series of work stations until it is finished. More complex lines include feeder belts to carry parts to work stations along the line, used for building cars and other complex equipment. The development of the assembly line revolutionized manufacturing, and contributed to the substantial fortunes of several major players in the Industrial Revolution.

Before the advent of the assembly line, when a commercial good was manufactured, it was usually created by hand, from individually fabricated parts. Factory production was limited by available floorspace, as only so many products could be made at once, and workers tended to see a project through from beginning to end. By the mid-nineteenth century, many companies in the food industry had begun to set up something resembling an assembly line to make the process more efficient, but it was not entirely streamlined. Goods like the early automobile and steam engines were still made by hand.

In 1908, Henry Ford was trying to find a way to bring automobiles to the masses. Ford was confident that if the cars could be made affordable, they would become popular, but the slow and painstaking method of manufacture being used did not allow Ford to bring the cost of the cars down. Working in consultation with others at the company, Ford conceived of a production line, where the labor of workers would be divided into specific tasks which would contribute to the finished whole. The inspiration for this early assembly line likely came from several industries, but many historians credit the disassembly line at a Chicago slaughterhouse with the idea of dividing the labor.

An assembly line is designed to be highly efficient, and very cost effective. The workers focus on a small part of the overall whole, meaning that they do not require extensive training. Parts are fed along a conveyor belt or series of belts for workers to handle, creating a continuous flow of the desired product. At the peak of production, Ford's line turned out a new automobile every three minutes, and modern lines can be even more rapid, especially when they combine automated machinery with human handlers.

There are dangers associated with an assembly line. The first is the risk to workers, as repetitive movement can be harmful to the body. After the Second World War, a growing awareness of this issue led to reforms in assembling environments. The second issue is that if there is a snarl in production at one work station, it will have an impact on the entire line, potentially bringing it to a halt until the situation can be fixed. However, most modern manufacturers work to prevent this with regular inspection, and some manufacturers, especially of cars, welcome worker input and thoughts on ways to make the assembly line, and the product, better.

About Mechanics is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a About Mechanics researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon998789 — On Aug 26, 2017

Please provide some examples for the concepts that would be better to be understood.

By anon78218 — On Apr 17, 2010

What about Olds? Didn't he have an assembly line before Henry Ford?

By anon54981 — On Dec 03, 2009

i think the article was good. i mean, so many people think that mr big boss of the model T that mister Henry Ford himself built it and invented it with his own two hands, when actually he just put in the conveyor belt! Ranson E. Olds made the assembly line, not Henry Ford!

By anon50512 — On Oct 29, 2009

i know how to make a small model of an assembly line. first you're going to need supplies. A hammer, a tool and some nails. Nail the nails into the tool with the hammer, at a 45 degree angle for best results. Then get people who need work to walk around and do random stuff with your tool. This would be like an assembly line.

By anon7916 — On Feb 05, 2008

how to make a small model of an assembly line?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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