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The Ford Model T was not the first car.
Not even close.
Depending on how you define what a car is, that honour was achieved 100 years before
Henry Ford was even born in 1769, when French engineer Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot created this
steam powered vehicle designed to travel off rail.
The honour for the first true automobile goes to Karl Benz, founder of Mercedes Benz, in
With this single piston 2 stroke gasoline powered vehicle.
The art of the automobile was well under development before Henry Ford hit the scene.
No Ford did not invent the automobile, he invented something much more profound.
He created modern society.
That is a massive claim, but bear with me.
His manufacturing techniques did not just revolutionise how we design and build everything.
Making complicated machinery like tractors and cars affordable for the masses.
His manufacturing techniques radically changed the trajectories of billions of people’s
At the turn of the 18th century craft manufacturing was the status quo.
Defined by a highly skilled workforce.
People wishing to pursue a career in automotive manufacturing, entered their career and progressed
through an apprenticeship.
Picking up a huge variety of skills, gradually learning the tricks of the trade and being
masters of their craft.
Many would go on to run their own machine shops.
These were less employees, and more contractors.
In these days, a machine like an automobile was not built entirely in house.
Parts would come from smaller machine shops from all over a city.
They used general purpose tools and machines to create the parts needed, which would be
sent to the final assembler.
These part would vary massively from one batch to another, requiring a skill assembling team.
Workers needed to understand the function of the part they were working on, and skillfully
manipulate the parts together into the final vehicle.
There was no mass manufacturing of complex machines like this.
Each vehicle was one of a kind, commissioned by whoever was wealthy enough to afford it.
At this production volume no company could create a monopoly.
There were hundreds of small craft shops like this across Western Europe and North America,
but many would soon be run out of business by Henry Ford before they had the chance to
adopt his mass manufacturing techniques.
Only the best craft manufacturers survived.
Companies like Aston Martin and Bentley succeeded by focusing on the ultra wealthy that could
afford these one off vehicles, using skilled craftsmen to build unique and luxurious cars,
but even they would soon have to join the movement to survive.
All eventually being bought out by these mass production power houses, no longer able to
keep up with cost of innovation and manufacturing required to keep pace in the automotive industry.
At the high point of the Model T’s success in 1923, Ford was manufacturing 2.1 million
Model Ts a year, a figure that would only be matched by a single vehicle model again
with the VW Beetle.
Many people chalk Henry Ford’s success down to inflexibility in design.
The famous quote of “You can have colour as long as it is black”.
This was true for many years, but perhaps not for the reason you think.
You see, Henry Ford was obsessed with manufacturing speeds.
The painting process he used allowed the paint to dry quickly, and it was only available
 He shaved time off wherever possible to achieve that monumental milestone of 2.1 million
Model Ts a year.
The Model-T was no fluke, it was the culmination in over 20 design iterations over 5 years.
Each one tweaking the design and manufacturing procedure to cut seconds off the total process,
and the innovations continued through the nearly 20 years of production, that would
see a total of 15 million Model Ts manufactured.
On the first day of production in 1908, the average task cycle for the Model T lasted
The task cycle time is the length of time before a single task is repeated.
So, the average worker did not repeat a task for 8 and a half hours.
For Ford, this was essentially how quickly a single production line was producing vehicles,
as assembly lines cannot start a new vehicle until another has exited at the other end.
So, he set to work on reducing that cycle time, and by 1913 he managed to bring it down
to just 2.3 minutes.
For a product this complex, consisting of hundreds of parts, with hundreds of processes,
that is astounding and was something no other company had ever achieved.
How on earth did Ford achieve this quantum leap forward in manufacturing speedl?
Let’s first start with innovations that Ford was not responsible for that allowed
him to begin this journey.
As I said, one of the reasons highly skilled workers were essential to these industries
before Ford came along, was because of the high variability between parts.
In engineering we call this tolerancing.
When I worked as a design engineer, I needed to specify the tolerances I needed for specific
Say I needed a shaft to fit a particular hole, I need to specify how much the machinist was
permitted to deviate from the listed dimension.
If I have a 20 mm hole paired with a 19 mm shaft, and I specify that both can deviate
from that dimension by plus or minus 0.5 millimeters.
Even at the extreme ends of both, where both are 19.5 mm wide, they will still fit with
This may not be acceptable depending on application, and higher tolerancing may be needed, which
generally means an increase in cost.
Engineers regularly screw up with these things even today, but in Ford’s day consistently
achieving a tolerance that tight in mass manufacturing would have been huge task, and was generally
something saved for military applications, and not for low cost consumer products.
This was largely due to the manufacturing techniques of the day, specifically heat treatment
As explained in my knife forging and aluminium videos, metals need to be heated and cooled
in specific ways to strengthen or harden the metal, but this also makes the metal much
harder to cut and shape, so the metals were often cut first and heat treated after.
This heating and cooling causes the metal to deform due to thermal expansion, which
can then throw the original piece out of tolerance.
This is called warping, and it made it nigh on impossible to get a consistent final product.
Many attribute Ford with revolutionizing the standardisation of parts , but in truth
he was simply at the right place at the right time to benefit from technologies that facilitated
New methods for cutting and stamping pre-hardened metals allowed Ford to eliminate much of this
variability due to warping.
Advancements in precision measurement and manufacturing allowed Ford to be confident
that parts would be interchangeable, and in turn this allowed Ford to design his vehicles
in a way that reduced costs.
This was the dawn of destruction for the craft manufacturing industry, and the beginning
of a movement that would change the face of modern society.
While his competitors were casting each cylinder of their engine blocks separately and bolting
them together, due to the difficulty in casting a single part with multiple holes that needed
to line up precisely.
Ford casted a single complex engine block, that drastically reduced the time required
to manufacture and assembly it.
This of course, led to incredibly expensive dedicated machinery needed to manufacture
a single piece of the vehicle.
In the world of craft manufacturing, a skilled worker could use a general purpose tool and
skillfully use it to produce the final product.
In the world of mass manufacturing this was not acceptable.
It took too long and required skilled workers who were too difficult to replace.
For example, engine blocks consist of an upper and lower part that need to mate perfectly
to maintain a seal for engine compression.
Ford’s competitors, like Cadillac, used a single flexible milling machine to create
a flush surface on both the upper and lower halves of the engine block.
Engine blocks and heads were loaded and milled slowly and precisely one at a time.
Ford instead created dedicated machines to mill engine blocks and engine heads separately,
15 and 30 at a time respectively.
Workers simply snapped the unmilled pieces into a tray while the previous lot was being
milled, and then pushed the tray into place when the time came.
A worker could be trained in 5 minutes to do this task.
They didn’t need to speak the same language as the person next to them.
They didn’t need to think about anything else.
Just feed the machine.
Like the little butter passing robot of Rick and Morty,
“What is my purpose?
You pass butter.
OH MY GOD.” these people had a single purpose.
This of course resulted in inflexibility in design.
The cost of introducing an entirely new model vehicle was drastically increased.
This is why, even today, that car brands tend to iterate on old designs rather than introduce
entirely new models.
It’s simply too expensive and time consuming to retrofit entire production lines.
When Ford eventually decided to completely redesign the Model T and produce the Model
A, these machines were thrown out, but he had achieved his goal, cycle times were lowering,
and there was still room to improve.
Ford managed to half cycle times from 2.3 minutes to 1.2 minutes, with his next innovation.
When production first started on the Model T employees worked from a stationary work
If they needed a part or tool they would get up and get it themselves.
Ford soon recognized the waste and introduced dedicated stock suppliers, who’s only job
was to ensure that other workers had the parts they needed to keep production running at
a constant pace.
Where possible these employees were replaced with automated supply lines.
This idea grew and evolved to the introduction of Ford’s greatest manufacturing innovation,
the moving assembly line, a manufacturing technique still in use today, even for huge
machines like planes.
This is Boeing’s moving assembly like for the 777, which carries the entire 166 tonne
plane across the factory ford, gradually adding the 3 million parts needed to complete it.
This method introduces a sense of urgency to the factory floor, an ever looming deadline
to complete your work before the plane reaches the next production step.
If there is a critical problem the entire production line will literally stop moving
until it’s fixed.
 Ford was not the first to introduce such an idea.
They had been used in simple production lines for butchering of carcasses and food preparation
before, but never for anything this complex and Ford applied it as a science.
Using his engineering skills to help pioneer a new branch of engineering, industrial engineering.
A branch of engineering mostly concerned with optimizing the logistics of manufacturing.
Spend a few hours playing Factorio and you will really gain an appreciation for the complexity
of this profession.
It starts off simple, but as your factory grows you need to carefully manage production
speeds to avoid pile ups.
You need to plan and place your production units to maximize transportation speeds, and
get the products where they need to be.
One of the huge problems you run into is faster production units producing items faster than
you need them further up the line, causing pile ups of stock that can back up and actually
block other production units, before you know it production has grinder to a halt.
The moving assembly line forces all workers to work at the same pace.
Faster workers can’t produce items faster than they are needed, and slower workers can’t
Ford’s innovations catapulted The Ford Motor Company to international success, but that
dominance would not last forever.
Companies came from all over the world to observe Ford’s factories.
They marveled at how the factory itself was like a finely tuned machine, each part feeding
into the other.
They took their lessons home, and by 1955 mass manufacturing had proliferated around
the world, and soon companies outside the US were not just catching up with the big
three of Detroit.
Ford, General Motors and Cadillac, but far exceeding their capabilities.
Most notably Toyota in post world war 2 Japan who led a revolution in manufacturing through
a new manufacturing philosophy, lean manufacturing.
This graph shows all vehicles produced by region after 1955, showing the explosion in
growth in Japan with the advent of lean manufacturing, that would lead to Detroit’s eventually
Detroit would soon become a ghost town.
Just as these companies viewed their machines as disposable, they viewed their employees
Dropping them the moment demand tanked.
This problem has only got worse.
Zero hour contracts and strict control of unions is common.
Ford actually paid his workers incredibly well for the time, but that meant little when
demand dropped and these workers had few transferable skills to gain new employment.
For better or worse Ford’s innovations completely changed the job market for billions of people.
I was one of those people, working 12 hour shifts with only one task.
Weigh a stent and pass it to the next step.
During that time I made extra efforts to learn new skills outside of work to keep myself
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