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Making a big production out of it!

Publishing Date : 06 March, 2018

Stuart White
The World in Black-N-White

On December 1st 1913, automaker and innovator Henry Ford changed the course of history.   That was the day when the Ford production line began making the iconic Model-T Ford motor car, also affectionately known as the Tin Lizzy, changing the way goods were manufactured forever.  This revolutionary concept reduced the time it took to build a car from more than 12 hours to two hours and 30 minutes.  The car of the people became a reality.

Ford’s Model T, first introduced in 1908, was simple, sturdy and relatively inexpensive–but not affordable enough for Ford, who was determined to build motor cars for the masses.  “When I’m through,” he said, “about everybody will have one.” In order to achieve this aim, Ford  realised a way to build them more efficiently was required: 

He had been trying to increase his factories’ productivity for years; the workers who built his Model N cars (the Model T’s predecessor) arranged the parts in a row on the floor, put the under-construction auto on skids and dragged it down the line as they worked; later, the streamlining process grew more sophisticated; Ford broke the Model T’s assembly into 84 distinct processes  and trained each of his workers to handle just one; he also hired motion-study expert Frederick Taylor to make those jobs even more efficient; meanwhile, he built machines that could stamp out parts automatically and much more quickly than even the fastest human worker could.  

The most significant piece of Ford’s efficiency crusade was the assembly line. Inspired by the continuous-flow production methods used by flour mills, breweries, canneries and industrial bakeries, along with the disassembly of animal carcasses in Chicago’s meat-packing plants, Ford installed moving lines for bits and pieces of his manufacturing process: workers built motors and transmissions on rope-and-pulley–powered conveyor belts and in December 1913 he unveiled the pièce de résistance: the moving-chassis assembly line. 

The following year he added a mechanized belt to speed up the whole process and allow him to produce more    and more cars.  On June 4, 1924, the 10-millionth Model-T rolled off the Highland Park assembly line and Henry Ford and his Tin Lizzy passed into automotive history.  

That was just over a hundred years ago, since then motor manufacturing has become ever more streamlined and efficient.  Toyota, for example, cites an average of 17-18 hours for an average vehicle to be produced from start to finish and such typical Japanese efficiency keeps costs down for the consumer and makes the Toyota Corolla the best-selling car of all time, with over 44 million sold.

However, as the arguments over Brexit rage all over the UK, one interesting fact emerged this week in a speech by Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn which he cited as a shining example of pan-European cooperation and integration.  See if you agree.  Here is the process, as summed up in The Guardian newspaper, explaining the production line of the modern Mini Cooper car.

“If there is just one anecdote that succinctly sums up the problems that Brexit and the threat of tariffs pose to the UK car industry, it is this: the story behind the crankshaft used in the BMW Mini, which crosses the Channel three times in a 2,000-mile journey before the finished car rolls off the production line. A cast of the raw crankshaft – the part of the car that translates the movement of the pistons into the rotational motion required to move the vehicle – is made by a supplier based in France.

From there it is shipped to BMW’s Hams Hall plant in Warwickshire, where it is drilled and milled into shape. When that job is complete, each crankshaft is then sent back across the Channel to Munich, where it inserted into the engine. From Munich, it is back to the Mini plant in Oxford, where the engine is then “married” with the car. If the car is to be sold on the continent then the crankshaft, inside the finished motor, will cross the Channel for a fourth time.

Another well-travelled car part is the Bentley bumper. It is made in eastern Europe before being sent to Crewe for further work, then on to Germany for finishing and finally back to Crewe where it is added to the luxury vehicle.” Is it just me or do these sound like the worst example of unnecessary carbon footprint, the biggest waste of time and the most inefficient production method the likes of which Henry Ford could probably have never have dreamed of in his worst nightmare scenario?  

That, apparently is what happens when a car once produced entirely in one British Leyland factory in Birmingham in the British Midlands was sold to BMW in Germany in the 1990’s who then farmed out bits of production all over continental Europe for reasons best known to themselves.  It’s certainly not what we’ve come to expect from the by-the-book, by-the-clock Germans!  Poor Henry must be spinning in his grave.

While pondering this, it occurred to me that some younger readers might not be aware that Botswana, too, had a vehicle assembly plant.  Built at great cost in the 1990s, this behemoth of a manufacturing plant stood on a huge site just near the Broadhurst Industrial circle on the Western Bypass.  It’s still there physically – check it out next time you drive past – a huge interconnected building complex, all in the same off-white and blue livery of the Hyundai brand but alas, no car has been made there since its collapse in 2001, leaving local backers, including BDC with huge losses to write off, citing a downturn in the Asian car market from whence the parts were shipped in. 

There were also rumours, whether true or apocryphal, of some dirty dealing and money laundering by foreign stakeholders and for a long time the Hyundai name was mud locally, with cars sold but no longer any back up or spares – the vehicles were virtual automotive white elephants.

But back to the Mini and the all-important question of when is a production line not a production line, the answer to which, I would venture to suggest, is when it crosses the English Channel 4 times only to end up right back where it started and you can bet your bottom Euro that all that globetrotting will have been added on to the cost of the end product. For a car whose name reflects its compact size and will forever be associated with Britain and the Swinging Sixties, that’s an awful lot of travelling before the ignition key is even turned….



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