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Mass Production

The Spread And Limits Of Mass Production

Ford became the toast of the nation. Manufacturers of many types quickly became interested in Ford's methods. The company's manufacturing process was initially known as Fordism, before being called mass production in the 1920s. Soon other car manufacturers, as well as manufacturers ranging from household appliances to radios, were using variations on Ford's methods. Ford's system called for making one unchanging product. Each copy of a product was exactly the same, and customers didn't have any choices about the cars they wanted to buy. For the first 12 years of its production, the Model T was only available in black. However, by the time the 15 millionth Model T had been built in 1927, the basic design was 20 years old and the market was saturated. No one wanted to buy any more Model Ts and its sales were falling fast.

When one of Ford's rivals, General Motors, designed and expanded its own mass production system during the 1920s, it built it with a greater amount of flexibility. GM used general purpose machine tools that could be adapted quickly to design changes. It also built the parts that went into its cars at a variety of locations, rather than all in the same factory as at Ford. When GM switched from a four-cylinder engine to a six-cylinder engine, the company first perfected the equipment at a small experimental plant. It was then able to switch over the main engine plant in Flint, Michigan, to six-cylinder production in a mere three weeks. Other parts of GM's business continued with no interruption at all.

In contrast, when Ford switched from the dying Model T to the Model A in 1927, the entire factory had to be shut down for six months. Ford had become so good at producing one product, and had become so specialized, that the change to a new product threw the company into chaos. After this demonstration of the shortcomings of doing everything in one factory, Ford too became less centralized. Mass production clearly had needed more flexibility; now it had it.


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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Macrofauna to MathematicsMass Production - Predecessors To Mass Production, Mass Production Begins At Ford, The Assembly Line, The Spread And Limits Of Mass Production