Technological Mutations and
Henry Ford

James Foreman-Peck

Cardiff Business School


Focusing primarily on Europe, this paper examines the evolution of the production technology associated with Henry Ford. Key elements identified are mass and flow production, the progress of which are traced from the early nineteenth century. The concentration of standardised demand, necessary for mechanisation and therefore mass production, was in war-related production and often state industry. Flow production involved linked processes and could be undertaken with malleable materials such as pastry and wood pulp but required the development of powerful machine tools to extend on a large scale to metal products. These tools were developed in the US towards the end of the nineteenth century under the stimulus of skilled labour shortages and raw material abundance. European conditions required compromises with this American technology, both because markets were less extensive and because skilled labour was more abundant. Some of these compromises might be described as ‘flexible production’, for example the early development of internal combustion motor vehicle technology in Europe. But the same technologies and organisations could not compete in supplying the mature, standardised, products. The Ford production line was created experimentally, through many trials and errors. Success bred complacency and institutional sclerosis, allowing General Motors to get ahead in the US during the later 1920s and European producers to develop their own high volume models and production styles. Japanese competition in the form of Toyotism or lean production adopted a different approach to their workforces; an alternative organisation rather than machine technology. German arrangements, running second to the Japanese in efficiency in the 1980s, also depended on the skills of their workforce even though often used in unskilled tasks. Despite employing similar machine technologies, national styles of production and productivity persisted, because national infrastructures, especially training systems, continued to differ. .

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