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November 27, 2013

A 100-Year-Old Idea Is New Every Day

Posted by Rohit Kedia (View Profile | View All Posts) at 4:31 AM

How Ford's Assembly Line Has Changed Over 100 Years [Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cxjZ2VT9lFU]

One hundred years ago this month, the automaker Henry Ford stretched a 150-foot rope down the length of his manufacturing plant, attached it to a winch, and - voila - the moving assembly line was born.

Such an assembly line arose from the basic need to manufacture a product - in Ford's case, automobiles - fast enough to keep up with consumer demand. Up until 1913, the production of a car typically involved a team of skilled machinists who would build the model from the ground up.

The assembly line was innovative because it assigned a single task to each of the workers along the line. The workers repeated their tasks on each car that came down the assembly line. This format meant the worker didn't necessarily have to be a skilled machinist. Because the work often involved simply affixing a part to the body of the car, a worker with fewer skills could be hired.

In turn, more people could get employment and develop their skills on the job. In just a few weeks, the assembly line reduced the time it took to manufacture an automobile to three hours from 12. So why, you ask, am I dusting off this interesting piece of industrial history? Well, we live in the digital age, when bits and bytes of information can travel around global networks in seconds. Yet the moving assembly line, which is a century old, is nevertheless an innovation in progress.

The 100-year anniversary of this concept got me to thinking that innovations aren't static things. The best ones are constantly evolving in order to meet the latest needs and expectations of consumers and organizations. Think of how the assembly line has changed: It originally was well suited to manufacturing one model. Automakers cranked out what was essentially the same car time and again, even if it had slight modifications such as differently colored paint jobs.

Today the moving assembly line allows global companies to do just the opposite. They utilize what is a 100-year-old concept to differentiate their products. That's because assembly lines are automated and powered by high-tech computing platforms that can respond to requests from customers in the blink of an eye. Suppose a popular movie comes out that has as its penultimate scene a car chase in which the car driven by the hero is a distinctive shade of yellow. Overnight, car buyers flock to showrooms in search of a car in that color. There is no gradual ramp-up to producing enough yellow cars to meet that new level of demand - the assembly line's robotic painters spray the optimal number of frames to meet demand. What was once an innovation that mass-produced is now an innovation that customizes.

The moving assembly line also helps consolidate an organization's products or services. If, to use a different transportation industry example, an airplane manufacturer discovers that two of its five jet bodies are in much higher demand, it can make its assembly lines produce a greater variety of planes using the two most popular models instead of spreading them across five. In a cost-conscious market, companies can refine their manufacturing strategies to build more from less.

Therein lies the power of transformative innovations. When a fundamental technology is so profound that it disrupts the market, there's no reason to change the underlying concept. Sure, engineers, scientists, and even organizational experts can tweak the technology to be more applicable to the demands of the current marketplace, but the innovation in and of itself remains solid and unchanged.

Maybe when we make incremental improvements to innovations with which we are already familiar, we're becoming a more efficient part of the enterprise. The best of us can take an idea that's a century old and teach it new tricks.

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