The introduction of the assembly line revolutionized the automotive industry. The Ford Company began using the innovation in 1913 and rapidly increased production. With the assembly line, more cars could be produced faster and more cheaply, so automobiles became more accessible to consumers. Here, workers install a door at the Ford Motor Company’s modern assembly plant in Ohio.
Before a new model can be built, the factory must first be retooled. Retooling a factory involves changing the machines on the factory floor to produce a different style of automobile. Skilled tool makers, pattern makers, and die makers look at the specifications for the new car parts and cooperate with the tool design office to craft the tools and modify, or tool up, the machines.
The purchasing department assures that needed supplies for production are available on time and within budget. Qualified buyers have knowledge of both engineering and accounting, and they are responsible for ordering the raw materials to make the parts in-house or for ordering finished components from a parts supplier.
After raw materials are received and inspected, they are cast, forged, stamped, or molded into different body shapes (see Forging). Press shop workers operate the machines that stamp steel into body panels. Fiberglass molders and cutters help mold large plastic body parts and cut the rough edges. Paint shop workers and spray gun operators put the final touches on the plastic or steel shell. Since many of these body-making jobs have been or are being automated, there is an increasing need for computer analysts, programmers, and technicians. These computer-oriented positions usually require college degrees or post-high-school training.
Machine operators, who work in all parts of the factory, are particularly important in engine building. They take the rough castings and forgings of the engine parts and machine them to the required tolerances and accuracy. Machine operators need to be skilled, with experience on numerically controlled and computerized machinery. Engine builders put the engine parts together by hand, a job for car mechanics who can quickly understand changes in engine design.
Manufacturing personnel work on the assembly lines and operate numerous machines, computers, robots, and other equipment to produce the items needed for each car. Heat treatment tempers and strengthens the forged and cast parts, which are then shaped into components that are assembled into subassemblies (gearboxes, axles, engines, doors, dashboards). The chassis (the underlying frame of the automobile) and body are joined and painted. Electricians, many of whom are first hired as apprentices or trained in company training programs, make sure that electrical parts are correctly fitted and connected in the car.
Components and subassemblies are gradually combined along the assembly line at different points to construct the car. Line operators generally are less skilled workers who carry out one or two simple assembly line operations. The manufacturer gives these workers limited training. At almost every stage of the assembly process, skilled inspectors assure the quality of the work.
This pattern of production, which emerged from 1900 to 1920, changed little in the first 80 years of the century. Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, manufacturers began buying completed subassemblies instead of their components—completed dashboards, for instance, rather than individual instruments—and began building the auto body around these subassemblies. These and other production strategies have enabled companies to address the fast-changing market more rapidly and effectively. Companies can now change production lines faster and make more specialized cars more economically.