Henry Ford – Mass Production [entry from The Encyclopaedia Britannica 14th Edition Volume 15] (1929)

MASS PRODUCTION. The term mass production is used to describe the modern method by which great quantities of a single standardized commodity are manufactured. As commonly employed it is made to refer to the quantity produced, but its primary reference is to method. In several particulars the term is unsatisfactory. Mass production is not merely quantity production, for this may be had with none of the requisites of mass production. Nor is it merely machine production, which also may exist without any resemblance to mass production. Mass production is the focussing upon a manufacturing project of the principles of power, accuracy, economy, system, continuity and speed. The interpretation of these principles, through studies of operation and machine development and their co-ordination, is the conspicuous task of management. And the normal result is a productive organisation that delivers in quantities a useful commodity of standard material, workmanship and design at minimum cost. The necessary, precedent condition of mass production is a capacity, latent or developed, of mass consumption, the ability to absorb large production. The two go together, and in the latter may be traced the reasons for the former.


In origin mass production is American and recent; its earliest notable appearance falls within the first decade of the 20th century. The mere massing of men and materials is a procedure as old as the pyramids. Basic industries, like weaving, domestic baking, house construction and wooden ship building, are carried on, with only superficial changes, much as they were in ancient Egypt. Cottage manufactures and handicrafts moulded the practices of industry until the invention of the steam-engine. With the coming of power machines the seat of industry was removed from the homes of the people and a new work centre, the factory, was established. Much harsh criticism has been uttered against “the factory system,” but it is perhaps fair to say that its first effect was to emancipate the home from being a mere adjunct to the loom or bench, and its later effect was to provide the home with means to develop the dignified status which it has now attained.

The Factory System Giving Way. — The early factory system was uneconomical. Its beginning brought greater risk and loss of capital than had been known before, lower wages and more precarious outlook for the workers, and a decrease in quality of goods. More hours, more workers, more machines did not improve conditions; every increase did but enlarge the scale of fallacies built into business. Mere massing of men and tools was not enough; the profit motive, which dominated enterprise, was not enough. There remained the scientific motive which grew eventually into what is called mass production.

The new method came after the failure of the mercantile and financial emphasis in manufacture. The advent and progress of financial control of industry were marked by two developments, the corporation and the labour revolt. Artificial combination of industrial plants into vast corporations for financial purposes was the first movement toward mass in industry. It proceeded on the theory that complete financial control would automatically bring complete profit advantage. The theory ignored many vital principles of business and its fallacy became apparent, but not before serious social hostility had been incurred.

However, it was out of the social strife thus engendered that the idea began to emerge that possibly the difficulty lay in the neglect of scientific manufacturing principles. Industry was conceded to be necessary and useful; the service it rendered was regarded as of sufficient value to afford fair compensation for all engaged in it; it was therefore urged that the attention of management should be more directly focussed on the actual labour processes that were employed. This led to what was known early in the 20th century as the “efficiency movement” with its accompaniments of time-study and similar methods, although its roots were laid in the experiences of sound industrial observers as early as 1878. It cannot be said, however, that the efficiency experts did more than direct attention to the problem, by showing, in selected instances, how the then current methods were wasteful of men’s earning power, and how their correction and improvement could lead to greater production, hence higher wages, and therefore a general betterment of labour relations. They emphasized a more intelligent management of methods than was then in use; they did not see that a wholly new method was possible which would simply abolish the problems of which the old method, under the most intelligent management, was inevitably prolific. For example they dealt with methods which enabled labourers whose task was to load 12½ tons of pig-iron a day, to load 47½ long tons a day for an increase in the day’s pay from $1.15 to $1.85. They did not see that another and better method might be devised which would make it unnecessary for a working-man to carry 106,400 lb. of pig-iron to earn $1.85. Mass production was not in their view, but only the alleviation of the worst errors of competitive factory practice.

The Motor Industry heads the Way. — To the motor industry is given the credit of bringing mass production to experimental success, and by general consent the Ford Motor Company is regarded as having pioneered in the largest development of the method under a single management and for a single purpose. It may, therefore, simplify the history of mass production and the description of its principles if the experience of this company is taken as a basis. It has been already suggested that mass production is possible only through the ability of the public to absorb large quantities of the commodity thus produced. These commodities are necessarily limited to necessities and conveniences. The greatest development of mass production methods has occurred in the production of conveniences. The motor vehicle represents a basic and continuous convenience-transportation.

Mass production begins, then, in the conception of a public need of which the public may not as yet be conscious and proceeds on the principle that use-convenience must be matched by price-convenience. Under this principle the element of service remains uppermost; profit and expansion are trusted to emerge as consequences. As to which precedes the other, consumption or production, experiences will differ. But granted that the vision of the public need is correct, and the commodity adapted to meet it, the impulse to increased production may come in anticipation of demand, or in response to demand, but the resulting consumption is always utilized to obtain such increase of quality, or such decrease of cost, or both, as shall secure still greater use-convenience and price-convenience. As these increase, consumption increases, making possible still greater production advantages, and so on to a fulfilment that is not yet in view.

The commodities that conduce to civilized living are thus far enjoyed by only a small fraction of the world’s inhabitants. The expedience of the Ford Motor Company has been that mass production precedes mass consumption and makes it possible, by reducing costs and thus permitting both greater use-convenience and price-convenience. If the production is increased, costs can be reduced. If production is increased 500% costs may be cut 50%, and this decrease in cost, with its accompanying decrease in selling price, will probably multiply by 10 the number of people who can conveniently buy the product.


As to shop detail, the keyword to mass production is simplicity. Three plain principles underlie it: (a) the planned orderly progression of the commodity through the shop; (b) the delivery of work instead of leaving it to the workman’s initiative to find it; (c) an analysis of operations into their constituent parts. These are distinct but not separate steps; all are involved in the first one. To plan the progress of material from the initial manufacturing operation until its emergence as a finished product involves shop planning on a large scale and the manufacture and delivery of material, tools and parts at various points along the line. To do this successfully with a progressing piece of work means a careful breaking up of the work into its “operations” in sequence. All three fundamentals are involved in the original act of planning a moving line of production.

This system is practised, not only on the final assembly line, but throughout the various arts and trades involved in the completed product. The motor car assembly line offers an impressive spectacle of hundreds of parts being quickly put together into a going vehicle, but flowing into that are other assembly lines on which each of the hundreds of parts have been fashioned. It may be far down the final assembly line that the springs, for example, appear, and they may seem to be a negligible part of the whole operation. Formerly one artisan would cut, harden, bend and build a spring. In 1928 the making of one leaf of a spring is an operation of apparent complexity, yet is really the ultimate reduction to simplicity of operation.

A Typical Operation Described. — For its illustrative value let us trace the course of a spring leaf after it has progressed from iron ore through ingot, bloom and billet stages, and is rolled into strips. (1) Beginning as a strip of steel prepared by the steelmill, it is placed in a punch press for cutting and piercing. The workman puts the strip into press until it hits a stop, then trips the press. The cut-off and pierced piece falls on a belt conveyor which runs along the loading end of a series of heat-treating ovens. (2) A second workman takes the pieces from belt conveyor and places them on conveyor which passes through the furnace (in which temperature is automatically controlled); thence they are deposited at a certain temperature by this conveyor at the unloading end of the furnace. (3) The heated piece is lifted with tongs by a third operator and placed in a bending machine which gives the leaf its proper curve and plunges it in oil, the temperature of which is maintained at a definite degree by apparatus beyond the operator’s control. (4) As the bending machine emerges from the oil bath, the same operator takes out the leaf and sets it aside to air-cool. (5) The leaf is then drawn by a fourth operator through molten nitrate kept at a regulated temperature. (6) A fifth workman inspects it.

As a set of springs on the Ford car requires on an average 17 leaves, and 25,000 springs are an average day’s output, this operation must be visualised as employing a great battery of lines similar to the one briefly described. As all the leaves in a spring are of different length and curve, from the bottom or master leaf to the top leaf, this operation must be visualised as one of many carried on simultaneously by different batteries of machines, each battery working on its own special size. All of these lines, with their various machines and operations, are converging on the point where the leaves are assembled into springs. The leaf whose progress has been described is the simplest one.

The operation proceeds as follows: (7) A sixth workman removes the leaf from the conveyor which carries it from the molten nitrate, and inserts a bolt through this and the other leaves required in the spring. (8) A seventh workman puts the nut on the bolt and tightens it. (9) An eighth workman puts on the right and left hand clips and grinds off the burrs. (10) A ninth workman inspects it. (11) He hangs the spring on a conveyor, 2) The spring passes the tenth workman, who sprays it with paint, and the conveyor carries the spring above the ovens where it was originally heated, and the radiated heat ‘force dries” the paint. (13) The conveyor continues to the loading dock, where the eleventh workman removes it.

One workman under the old system could attend the leaf through all these phases, or even make a complete spring, but his production would be limited. Where large quantities of the same article are to be made, the simplest operation may involve the whole time of one man. A one-minute operation will require one man a full day of eight hours to accomplish it on 480 pieces. Now this simple part, a spring leaf, must be identical in strength, finish and curve with millions of others designed to fulfil the same purpose, and this becomes a complicated and delicate procedure requiring automatic machinery, the most accurate of measuring devices, pyrometer controls, “go” and “no go” gauges — in fact, the best facilities that can be provided by modern management. The leaf described, which is a minor matter when compared with the whole great process, becomes a major matter when considered by itself; it must have its own supply of material delivered in sufficient quantities at indicated places — for example, steel at 1; heat at 2; power and oil at 3; molten nitrate at 5; bolts at 7; nuts at 8; clips at 9; paint at 12. In this process the secrets of many arts and trades are employed.

The story of this minor part illustrates what is meant by orderly progression of the article through the shop. It goes to meet other parts of the motor-car which have come from other parts of the plant by similar processes. The story illustrates also what is meant by delivering the work to the workman: every workman’s task is prepared for him by some other workman, and delivered to his hand. The third principle also is illustrated — the analysis of a single job into its constituent operations. The simplicity of the part here described should not be permitted to exclude from view the multitude of other operations, ranging from the heaviest forgings to the lightest manipulations in bench assembly of delicate electrical instruments. Some gauge inspections involve measurements to the ten-millionth part of an inch.

The economies arising from this method are obvious. The machinery is constantly in use. It would be economically impossible to maintain all this equipment for the service of men occupied in the entire operation of making springs. Presses, furnaces, bending machines, oil baths would be idle while the workman progressed from operation to operation. Under mass production it is the work that progresses from operation to operation. Use-convenience in the commodity would be lessened, while price-convenience would be destroyed. Economy in machine hours is, however, only one element; there is also economy in time and material and labour. Mass production justifies itself only by an economy whose benefits may be transmitted to the purchaser.


But it is not the history and principle of mass production which provoke the widest discussions; the effects of it have been placed under scrutiny. What have been the effects of mass production on society?

(1) Beginning with management, where unquestionably mass production methods take their rise, there is a notable increase in industrial control, as distinguished from financial control. The engineer’s point of view has gained the ascendancy and this trend will undoubtedly continue until finance becomes the handmaid instead of the mistress of productive industry. Industrial control has been marked by a continuous refinement of standardization, which means the instant adoption of the better method to the exclusion of the old, in the interests of production. Financial control was not, in its heyday, marked by a tendency to make costly changes in the interests of the product. The economy of scrapping the old equipment immediately upon the invention of the better equipment was not so well understood. It was engineering control, entrenched in mass production methods, that brought in this new readiness to advance. In this way management has been kept close to the shop and has reduced the office to a clearing house for shop managers and men have been brought into closer contact and understanding. Manufacturing has been reduced to greater singleness of purpose.

(2) The effect of mass production on the product has been to give it the highest standard of quality ever attained in output of great quantities. Conditions of mass production require material of the best quality to pass successfully through the operations. The utmost accuracy must control all these operations. Every part must be produced to fit at once into the design for which it is made. In mass production there are no fitters. The presence of fitters indicates that the parts have been produced unfit for immediate placement in the design. In works of art and luxury this accuracy is achieved at the cost of careful handiwork. To introduce hand methods of obtaining accuracy into mass production would render mass production impossible with any reference to price-convenience. The standard quality of the product is guaranteed by the fact that machines are so constructed that a piece of work cannot go through them unless it exactly accords with specifications. If the work goes through the tools, it must be right. It will thus be seen that the burden of creation is on management in designing and selecting the material which is to be produced by the multiple processes utilised in mass production.

(3) The effect of mass production on mechanical science has been to create a wide variety of single-purpose machines which not only group similar operations and perform them in quantity, but also reproduce skill of hand to a marvellous degree. It is not so much the discovery of new principles as the new combination and application of old ones that mark this development. Under mass production the industry of machine making has increased out of all comparison with its previous history, and the constant designing of new machines is a part of the productive work of every great manufacturing institution.

(4) The effect of mass production on employees has been variously appraised. Whether the modern corporation is the destruction or salvation of arts and crafts, whether it narrows or broadens opportunity, whether it assists or retards the personal development of the worker, must be determined by observable facts. A cardinal principle of mass production is that hard work, in the old physical sense of laborious burden-bearing, is wasteful. The physical load is lifted off men and placed on machines. The recurrent mental load is shifted from men in production to men in designing. As to the contention that machines thus become the masters of men, it may be said the machines have increased men’s mastery of their environment, and that a generation which is ceaselessly scrapping its machines exhibits few indications of mechanical subjection.

The need for skilled artisans and creative genius is greater under mass production than without it. In entering the shops of the Ford Motor Company, for example, one passes through great departments of skilled mechanics who are not engaged in production, but in the construction and maintenance of the machinery of production. Details of from 5,000 to 10,000 highly skilled artisans at strategic points throughout the shops were not commonly witnessed in the days preceding mass production. It has been debated whether there is less or more skill as a consequence of mass production. The present writer’s opinion is that there is more. The common work of the world has always been done by unskilled labour, but the common work of the world in modern times is not as common as it was formerly. In almost every field of labour more knowledge and responsibility are required than a generation or two ago.

Some Criticisms Answered. — Mass production has also been studied with reference to what has been called the monotony of repetitive work. This monotony does not exist as much in the shops as in the minds of theorists and bookish reformers. There is no form of work without its hardness; but needless hardship has no place in the modem industrial scheme. Mass production lightens work, but increases its repetitive quality. In this it is the opposite of the mediaeval ideal of craftsmanship where the artisan performed every operation, from the preparation of the material to its final form. It is doubtful, however, if the mass of mediaeval toil was as devoid of monotony as has sometimes been pictured, but it is absolutely certain that it was less satisfactory in its results to the worker. In well-managed modern factories the tendency to monotony is combated by frequent changes of task.

The criticism of mass production as a means of reducing employment has long since been out of court. The experience of the Ford Motor Company is that wherever the number of men has been reduced on manufacturing operations, more jobs have been created. A continuous programme of labour reduction has been paralleled by a continuous increase in employment. As to the effect of mass production on wages and the relations between managers and men, there is little need to speak. It is perhaps the most widely under- stood fact about mass production that it has resulted in higher wages than any other method of industry. The reason is at hand. The methods of mass production enable the worker to earn more and thus to have more. Moreover, the methods of mass production have thrown so much responsibility on the craftsmanship of management, that the old method of financial adjustment by reduction of wages has been abandoned by scientific manufacturers. A business that must finance by drafts out of the wage envelopes of its employees is not scientifically based. It is the problem of management so to organise production that it will pay the public, the workmen and the concern itself. Management that fails in any of these is poor management. Disturbed labour conditions, poor wages, uncertain profits indicate lapses in management. The craftsmanship of management absorbs the energies of many thousands of men who, without mass production methods, would have no creative opportunity. Here the modern method broadens instead of narrows individual opportunity.

(5) As to the effects of mass production on society, the increasing supply of human needs and the development of new standards of living are the elements to be estimated. The enlargement of leisure, the increase of human contacts, the extension of individual range, are all the result of mass production. (H. Fo.)

See H. Ford, My Life and Work (1924), and To-day and Tomorrow (1926); F. G. Filene, The Way Out (1924) ; and Articles in the American Economic Review.


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