CHICAGO | Back when a car was still more of a gee-whiz invention than a household staple, workers hand-built vehicles one at a time by moving down rows of sawhorses and installing parts at each station.
The vehicle frames never budged. The assembly process was slow, taking more than 12 hours. The end product was too pricey for most people.
But a century ago, Ford Motor Co. engineers figured out how to wind a rope around a winch to drag a chassis through a gauntlet of assembly workers on the factory floor.
That innovation – which was inspired by Chicago's South Side stockyards – changed everything.
The Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker did not need as many workers as its competitors. The time it took to make a Model T plunged from more than half a day to about an hour and a half. The sticker price fell to less than $300 from $850, making the car affordable for the average American.
On Monday, Ford celebrated the 100th anniversary of the moving assembly line at its Chicago Assembly Plant, which has been running full-steam seven days a week to produce the hot-selling Explorer, the Taurus and other models. The automaker announced plans to expand its flexible manufacturing platform worldwide so each of its plants makes an average of four different vehicles.
That platform is already in place at the factory in the Hegewisch neighborhood on Chicago's far South Side, where Ford makes five different models.
The 89-year-old plant is Ford's oldest continuously operating factory, but Chicago's history with the automaker goes even deeper.
"In fact, Chicago kind of played a unique role in the moving assembly line," plant manager Brent Merritt said. "Henry Ford visited the beef stockyards and was so impressed by the disassembly operation they had there that he actually took that back to his Highland Park facility, reversed that engineering and made the moving assembly lines to make the automobiles, which was quite an innovation. This allowed us to increase the pace at which the units could be made. In turn, this made the cars more affordable for the masses."
Ford is now in the middle of its largest manufacturing expansion in 50 years, which is being driven by strong sales around the globe. Ford has added eight new assembly plants, six new powertrain factories and new technologies such as 3-D printing, advanced prototyping and virtual simulation.
By 2017, the company plans to slim down from 15 vehicle platforms to nine core platforms to increase its manufacturing efficiency.
This year, the automaker is on pace to make 6 million vehicles, or about 16 every minute, in order to keep pace with revved-up consumer demand. The company is opening new factories in Russia, China, Brazil, India, Romania and Thailand.
The Chicago Assembly Plant, which is located at 126th Street and Torrance Avenue and first opened in 1924, has been running at capacity for the last few years and cannot expand because it is landlocked and hemmed in by the Grand Calumet River. The facility is one of the automaker's biggest and most productive factories, assistant plant manager Erik Williams said.
The plant is huge. About 4,200 workers – enough to populate a small town or two – work at the 2.8 million-square-foot factory that sprawls across 113 acres. About 16 miles of assembly line snake through the plant, which cranks out 360,000 units a year.
Cars and SUVs in various stages of production stretch for as far as the eye can see. They chug along the assembly line, get swooped up by overhead cranes for the installation of underbody parts, and are lined up in endless rows while inspectors do the final quality checks.
In 2010, Ford invested more than $400 million in the factory and the nearby Chicago Stamping Plant in Chicago Heights to ready production of the Ford Explorer. That capital investment has since paid off. Sales of the SUV are up 10 percent year-to-date. The Ford Explorer just posted its biggest September sales figures since the launch of the new model.
Trains and trucks haul the Explorer out of the Chicago plant to coastal ports, where they are shipped off to 106 countries across the globe, Merritt said. The company-wide switch to a flexible manufacturing platform means the Explorer could also be made in Flat Rock, Mich., or Canada if demand ever exceeded production capacity in Chicago, Williams said.
Currently, the South Side plant also makes the Ford Taurus, the Lincoln MKS and two types of Police Interceptors.
Police cars made in Chicago are sold in all 50 states, and the Taurus and Lincolns also are exported worldwide.
The Explorer accounts for more than half the plant's production, and its red-hot sales are what has kept its assembly line clicking along seven days a week.
Workers fasten nuts and bolts, and slide side windows into car doors. They scan television screens that point out any flaws in the near-finished vehicles, and hammer doors in so they fit perfectly.
Automated systems do much of the work. Robotic arms do precise welding. Huge articulating arms help workers slide the heavy dashboards into place. Overhead gantry cranes lift vehicles off the assembly skids and hold them aloft so workers can put the engines and transmissions in.
Vacuum air compressors work faster than any pit crew, sucking all the oxygen out of the tubes and hoses and force-feeding finished vehicles with five gallons of gas in 45 seconds. A Wi-Fi system beams instructions to workers, telling them which parts they should attach to each chassis that comes down the line.
The plant has become much more automated over the last few decades, said Alan "Coby" Millender, chairman of United Auto Workers Local 551.
Millender began working at the Chicago Assembly Plant in 1986. He started out hanging doors on the frames, and remembers when the assembly line never paused.
"It's the anniversary of the assembly line, which allowed a lot of UAW members to earn an honest living and to take care of our families," Millender said. "We're really excited about what we're doing here in Chicago, what we're building. The UAW is excited to be building world-class, quality vehicles."