The Modernization of Assembly Lines and Conveyor Systems

The Birth of the Modern Assembly Line

Assembly lines are manufacturing systems that moves work-in-progress from station to station in a sequential order, adding new parts at each station and resulting in a finished product at the end of the line. The concept of the assembly line dates back centuries, but it was American automobile manufacturer Henry Ford’s modern assembly line that would revolutionize the manufacturing industry.

Ford’s assembly lines, made of a series of conveyor systems, allowed workers to perform their work in a stationary position, essentially having the work come to them, with each worker having a specific duty they specialized in. When developing this idea, Ford kept four main principles in mind:
1. replaceable parts
2. perpetual flow
3. division of labor
4. reduction of wasted power and effort

The result: faster car production, increased job creation, and higher wages. Cars that previously took 12 hours to complete were finished in 90 minutes with Ford’s new process.

The automotive industry and others that tried to replicate Ford's success, discovered there is no one-size-fits-all approach to assembly lines and conveyor systems. Implementing the right process is found through trial and error and by weighing potential pros and cons.

Pros:

  • Reduce the number of workers required
  • Reduce time it takes to package or assemble product
  • Increased product output
  • Worker specialization
  • Safer working conditions

Cons:

  • Often an undesirable job
  • Requires significant compensation to attract workers
  • Some products cannot be mass-produced due to quality issues
  • Bottlenecks and delays
  • Replacing skilled tradesmen with unskilled labor

This process that Ford improved and innovated, which was already being used in smaller scales within the meatpacking, flour-milling, and brewing industries, is credited for helping create America’s middle class.

Conveyor Systems in Food and Beverage Manufacturing

While the original assembly line made production much more efficient, some manufacturers found ways to improve upon it throughout the 20th century, leading to various forms of automation taking over simple and repetitive tasks. Thus, the nature of the labor needed in the manufacturing industry has evolved since the days of the Ford Model-T, especially in the past decade with the increased use of automation eliminating the need for low-skill labor.

As food and beverage manufacturing grew during the 20th century, the use of conveyors, which was mostly used as a transport method by other industries, became integral to producing larger quantities of food and faster speeds.

Gone are the days of Lucy and Ethel frantically trying to keep pace with wrapping chocolates.

Today’s Food and Beverage manufacturers have evolved the conveyor process, introducing modern technologies spurred by industry 4.0, also known as the fourth industrial revolution. These systems now have widespread applications, including:

  • meat and poultry
  • seafood
  • baked good and snack foods
  • confections
  • fruits and vegetables
  • prepared foods
  • frozen food, organics
  • pet food
  • dairy-based products

But along with the benefits these systems provide come other expenses, including maintenance, repairs, and replacements. The manufacturing industry no longer needs as many low-skilled, labor-intensive jobs, but is more in need of highly skilled workers to monitor, maintain, and improve the existing automated manufacturing practices.

Smart Manufacturing Is Reshaping the Workforce

These innovations have led to fears of workers—mainly middle-class Americans—being replaced by robots, which has contributed to the slow implementation of industry 4.0 technologies. But the introduction of new technologies has resulted in the growth of a new workforce—one that is highly skilled in engineering, automation, and robotics, and between now and 2030, there will be an estimated 4 million manufacturing jobs to fill.

Today, smart manufacturing plants are fully digital with systems that are evolving production methods. More advanced equipment is improving reliability and making plants more profitable by avoiding costly downtimes.

The Future of the Assembly Line

Just like the invention of steam power sparking an industrial revolution in the 18th century, new digital technologies are sparking a revolution today: industry 4.0. While automation has been and still is a leading agent of change in manufacturing, advances in assembly line production will come more from increased visibility into the industrial process. Modern assembly lines are a detailed collaboration between human and machine organized by applications. With innovations like IoT, robotics, big data, computer vision, and other industry 4.0 technologies, the assembly line is vastly different from the one Ford originated in the early 1900s.

Some features of the modern assembly line include:

  • Data Collection
    • New sensors and IoT devices collect data in real time
  • Collaborative
    • Advanced robotics, collaborative automation, and more sophisticated software allows for more intimate work with machines on the assembly line
  • Less Linear
    • Work is sometimes routed more dynamically between lines and stations than in the past
  • High-Mix Products
    • High demand for customization and advanced error-proofing technology leads to more variants of a single product

Ford’s assembly line’s ability to improve the production transformed both the manufacturing industry and society. Other industries soon adopted the innovation, and today almost everything is manufactured on an assembly line. Many adjustments and innovations have been made over the century since it’s introduction, but the rise of industry 4.0 is sparking more change than ever.

Automation has long been making its way into manufacturing, taking over some of the more simple and repetitive tasks, but newer innovations like advanced data collection and IoT devices are propelling the industry further forward into the digital age. Things may look a lot different than when Ford was assembling cars, but these innovations are helping improve efficiency in manufacturing across all industries.


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