Henry Ford brought with his Model T car not only the first affordable and practical car, but also revolutionary production methods for complicated mechanical products. Ford’s Highland Park factory in Michigan, opened in 1910, introduced the modern production line, which enabled mass, and therefore cheap, production of the Model T. This production line was based on a long line of assembly stations that added parts and components to the product as it moved along them. The line moved forward at a predetermined pace, therefore forcing the workers on each station to adhere strictly to the timetable. Conveyor belt were used to move most of the products along the line, as well as to feed it parts. This type of production line was perfectly portrayed in Charlie Chaplin’s classic movie “Modern Times.” By contrast, in the traditional workbench technique most of the manufacturing tasks were performed on static stands by relatively small teams of highly skilled workers.
By the end of WWI several car factories in the USA and elsewhere already used the new production methods introduced by Ford, and other branches of the industry also adopted them. The aviation industry, however, was not among them. Although several countries produced large numbers of aircraft during the war, the aircraft industry stuck to traditional workbench production methods due to the fact that aircraft are complicated and delicate machines that require extremely high precision and care. Furthermore, at the time they were constructed mainly from traditional materials, such as wood and fabric, that were difficult to adapt to the new techniques of the automobile industry.
On the other side of the Atlantic, application of automotive methods to aircraft manufacturing was carried out even further. In May 1940 Henry Ford offered to the US government production of one thousand aircraft of standard design already in production a day. Both the US and British governments, shocked by the quick fall of France, soon started to consult him. His greatest rival, General Motors (GM) also offered to produce aircraft for the United States before the they entered WWII. Both firms influenced the conversion of the American aviation industry to modern production methods while converting some of their own plants to aviation production. GM, in particular, formed a useful and effective partnership with Grumman to produce naval fighters.
The Americans partially solved the problem by using the “blocks” system, in which several changes and modifications were collected and then incorporated on production “blocks”.
Both Nuffield and Ford offered to design their own aircraft and make it easier to produce more aircraft more quickly. Their offers were declined because of their inexperience in aircraft design and they were wisely tasked to produce existing designs. General Motors attempted in 1942-1943 to develop a high-performance heavy fighter using many components from existing aircraft types, significantly cutting down the time it would take to make it ready for mass production. The resulting P-75 Eagle fighter was a complete failure – even after a major redesign. The failure cost the US Army Air Force $49.75 million.
One of the most important influences of the introduction of modern production methods in the aviation industry was a social one. On the Allies’ side, the drastic cut of training and skill required from production technicians enabled mass recruitment of unskilled women to perform production tasks. Technology played a central role here. The development of easy to operate riveting machines enabled women to operate them after short training. “Rosie the Riveter” became an iconic figure symbolizing the thousands of women that worked in the war industry. It happened also in Great Britain and in the USSR, where simplification of aircraft for easier production became an art.
Mass military aviation production disappeared gradually after WWII. One reason was defense cuts and the raising costs of modern aircraft. Ford’s production methods were efficient only for the production of large batches. Another reason was the increasing complication of military aircraft, which made it almost impossible to produce them like consumer goods.
There was, however, one sector of the aviation industry that kept producing a regularly large series of easy-to-produce aircraft. The flourishing general aviation market – first in the USA and then elsewhere during the 50s- brought mass production of light aircraft on production lines that resembled the production lines of the automotive industry. Companies like Piper, Cessna, and Beechcraft were major manufacturers of utility aircraft during WWII. In the postwar years the production lines of these giants and of lesser manufacturers started to deliver thousands of light aircraft to the developing civilian market. The ERCO Company, for example, turned out, at a certain time, 34 Ercoupe light planes per day.
- Budrass, Lutz, Flugzeigindustrie und Luftrüstung in Deutschland 1918-1945, Düsseldorf: Droste, 1998.
- Braun, Hans-Joachim, “Aero-engine Production in the Third Reich”, in History and Technology 14 (1992), pp.1-15.
- Ferguson, Robert G., “One Thousand Planes a Day: Ford, Grumman, General Motors and the arsenal of Democracy” History and Technology, Vol.21, No.2 (June 2005), pp.149-175.
- Hounshel, David A., From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States, Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1984.
- Holley, Irving Brinton jr. „A Detroit Dream of Mass-produced Fighter Aircraft: The XP-75 Fiasco” Technology and Culture 28 (1987), pp.578-593.
- Mommsen, H. Grieger, M, Das Volkswagenwerk und seine Arbeiter im Dritten Reich. Düsseldorf: Econ, 1996.
- Sabel, Charles F.. Zeitlin, Jonathan (eds.), World of Possibilities : Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization, Cambridge: University Press, 1997.
- Zeitlin, Jonathan, “Flexibility and Mass Production at War: Aircraft Manufacture in Britain, the United States and Germany”, in Technology and Culture, 36 (1995), pp.46-79.
- Michigan Historical Center, Department of History.
About the author: Dr. Daniel Uziel researches different aspects of modern German history, military history, and war and media. In recent years he is researching the history of the German aviation industry. He conducted part of this research as a fellow at the US National Air & Space Museum.
You can find all of Dr. Uziel’s columns on TFOT here.