How Automotive Production Lines Work

Workers are photographed on a flywheel assembly line at the Ford Motor Company's Highland Park, Mich., plant in 1913. See more electric car pictures.
AP Photo/Ford Archives

If you need something nowadays, typically it's pretty easy to get. You simply hop in the car, hit up Target or Wal-Mart, and in a little while you have what you need. You don't really need to think about how it's made -- unless you're a big fan of "How It's Made" on the Science Channel, that is.

But even if you worked at the factory that produced whatever it is you bought, chances are you might not have a complete understanding of how the entire product was made. That's because many factories today work using assembly or production lines. On these lines, workers assemble or produce just one part of the whole product. In many cases, they only work on that one part, day after day or even year after year. So, while someone may work for many years at a plant that builds a specific product, they might never have a complete understanding of what it takes to build that product from start to finish.

We've all seen production or assembly lines, either in documentaries or in movies like Charlie Chaplain's "Modern Times," or in the famous chocolate factory scene from "I Love Lucy." But one of the most interesting and complex products that's built in a line system is cars and trucks. Automotive production lines revolutionized the automotive industry, as well as American life. They made building cars more efficient. Because of the increase in efficiency, the cost to produce a car went down and when production costs were lowered, so was the retail price of the cars. This price reduction meant more people could afford to buy a vehicle of their own. Also, because of the massive number of workers needed to staff these lines, millions of Americans moved away from farms and into the cities, transforming the economy from one based on agriculture to one based on manufacturing. At the same time, the relatively high wages and good benefits offered by automotive manufacturers helped pull many families into the American middle class, changing America's social makeup for generations to come.

While all assembly lines are interesting, in this article we're going to explore automotive production lines. You'll learn the basic principles behind an automotive production line and the web of jobs that are tied to them. We'll also explore how the American economy changed as people moved from farm or craftwork to production line work. And later, you'll read about the most recent innovations in automotive production, including companies that mass produce cars without using traditional production lines, and even a few car companies that still hand-build cars.