When it comes to manufacturing there are many great influencers that have led the way. Of course that fact that Henry Ford is one of them goes without saying.
While many people mistakenly think Ford invented the automobile (which he did not), and credit him with creation of the ‘assembly line’ (which he also did not), they fail to recognize that his implementation of efficiencies associated with worker time and motion within the assembly line production environment revolutionized both the automobile and assembly line. In fact, they made such a radical change in manufacturing that Ford’s Model T became the first automobile that middle class Americans could afford to purchase.
But Henry Ford was but one of the revolutionizing forces in manufacturing history, it also took two world wars, and the rise, collapse and phoenix of two countries to bring about the production concepts and standards that we today consider fundamental to manufacturing success. Those two countries were Germany and Japan.
Long before Ford, the automobile, as most of us know it, a gasoline-powered vehicle, was invented by Karl Benz, a German engine designer and engineer. Benz is also considered to be the father of the first ‘production’ vehicle, and of course the founder of Mercedes-Benz. From the very beginning, the focus of Benz was on perfection; while design, efficiency and practicality were all important, Benz viewed quality was critical. Many of the principles behind ‘quality control’ were first implemented in the production of Benz automobiles. He was not only what we might call a ‘stickler to details’, but “meticulous down to the ‘nth degree’.”
Following World War II, the redevelopment of Japan led to a re-focus of their industrial efforts away from pre-war military related production and to the manufacture of more practical. In fact, the focus of most Japanese industrialists was to make as much as you can as fast as you can, and so initially their post-war products were synonymous with ‘cheap’ and ‘poor quality’.
During the American occupation of Japan, the Offices of Allied Occupation placed an order with a little company called Toshiba for ‘vacuum tubes’. The American officer in charge of the purchase required Toshiba to submit a ‘control chart’ for the manufacturing process, but nobody at Toshiba even knew what the officer was asking for. When the officer told Toshiba’s Eizaburo Nishibori, “You don’t know what a control chart is, you can’t possibly manage the quality we require.”, he replied, “If we here at Toshiba don’t know what it is, nobody in Japan will know either.”
Soon thereafter personnel from the Office of Allied Occupation began giving basic lectures on the principles of Quality Control and QC requirements mandated by the U.S. Military. Initially only Japanese industrialists from Toshiba and NEC attended the lectures. Shortly thereafter Dr. Edward Deming was contracted to teach census sampling techniques to the Japanese government. In July of 1950, Dr. Deming introduced the concepts of statistical quality control to an audience of Japanese industrial leaders, using his trademarked colored-bead experiment.
About a decade of experimentation went by in Japan, during which time they created things like the wall-sized House of Quality matrix, and began introducing benchmarks to analyze, plan and execute quality targets within their facilities. Out of those humble beginnings, much of what today we know of the concepts surrounding lean manufacturing have centered around the philosophy that was implemented in Japan and culminated with Toyota’s leadership starting in the 1970’s including the concepts of speed, smart, slim and sustainability.
These changes resulted in manufacturing facilities specialized to produce a high volume of parts in a low mix environment, where assembly lines manufactures only one part, and factories produced just a few different components. Even those components varied little from one another. It was something radically different in approach than what most typical manufacturers were doing. They tended to manufacture entire lines of products all within the same facility, and even ‘fully customize’ products to meet specific customer requests.
1908 Ford Assembly Line
Back in the 1960s if you wanted to buy a new Lincoln Continental, you either picked one from the showroom, or you sat down with the dealer. They would pull out a huge list of features, everything from the number of cigarette lighters you wanted in your Lincoln to the two colors of leather in the seating surfaces. You could pick from 6 engines, 4 transmission options, 5 rear differentials, and 8 different brands of tires. (I bet a majority of readers don’t even know what a Lincoln Continental is.)
Today you go to the Lincoln website, pick a car model, a base package, a convenience group, and your exterior color and everything else is plugged in based upon those four selections. Heck if the dealer picks it out in their system, the car is on the assembly line and half-way finished by the time the delivery address is put in the system. Well, maybe not that fast, but you get the idea.
If you want customization, then that is what the ‘after-market’ is for, so you can add-on this, or add-on that.
Modern Ford Plant Assembly Robots
In the assembly plants of today robots are going to mount the drive train onto a chassis, and post the interior to the chassis, more robots will marry the body to the interior and chassis, and some production worker will finally screw on the license plate frame; with a little glass and some spit-polish, the car is out the door, just as soon as Mr. Final Quality Control (thanks to Mr. Benz) has signed-off on it. But this kind of streamlining, with components each going through their own manufacturing routines, in their own specialized plants, insures that the finished good is lean and clean; clean from the standpoint of higher quality, and lean from the standpoint that production costs as low as possible.
In a future episode of ‘Lean Manufacturing’ we will look at the application of these historical and updated concepts in today’s manufacturing sector.
Editor's Note: I know, I know, this article isn't about warehouses and inventory, in fact it really isn't even about 'nuts-n-bolts manufacturing', but the concepts apply throughout. Lean manufacturing is about 'lean' inventory management, and that implies 'warehouse' in a different way then what you may think of in a traditional sense. Or perhaps not, since almost all of my readers are so young that the warehouses of today (with certain lean principles already applied) are all they know.
Remember, Harry Truman said, 'the only history (of the future yet to come) we don't know, is the history we haven't read.' It's good to have a history lesson every once in a while.