The Consequences of The Assembly Line


The moving assembly line, sometimes called progressive assembly, has revolutionized our world. It has increased production, decreased costs, and ultimately, allowed us luxuries that are unfeasible otherwise. Further, the sequential piece wise assembly of good allows for easier repairs and part replacement. Henry Ford is credited with implementing the first mass assembly line in 1913 to build automobiles, though the actual invention of the assembly line is often given to Ransom Eli Olds. Since then, the assembly line has been a fundamental and obvious practice for nearly all profitable good producing business.

Looking through the eyes of a business man, there are massive benefits for using the assembly line model and relatively few drawbacks. First, assembly lines produce goods faster. Instead of workers bringing parts to the good being produced, the good is brought to them, they apend a part or two, and the good moves on to the next station. A hypothetical group of 10 workers, each attaching 1 of the 10 parts of a hypothetical good, can produce far more of that good than if each were to attempt to build the good one at a time by themselves.

To give credit where credit is due, lets think about the automotive production line of say a Ford car. Can you imagine if each Ford Factory worker was placed in a room and asked to build a car? Thirty Thousand. That is a rough average of the typical number of pieces that go into a modern car. To build a car, the worker would have to walk to 30,000 part storage areas and individually put them together. In addition to taking a very long time, this would of course imply that each employee would need to know how to build a car from start to finish, the next benefit of an assembly line.

Again assuming a strictly business oriented mind frame, assembly lines make sense because you are able to hire less skilled employees. One would have to pay a man or woman who knows how to build a car from start to finish a lot more than a man or woman who can screw one metal piece to another over and over again. The product of an assembly line may be very similar to the product from a single skilled person, but it will have cost much less money and time. These two things make the assembly line a no brainier for the business man, and ultimately, for everyone.

Today, few people are willing or even able to pay the premium for goods hand-made by just one or a few people. The assembly line dominates and creates our lives. In some ways, the assembly line has even transcended the realm of making goods into the intellectual realm. For non-scientists, it may be necessary to first notify you that modern science is very rarely the partially random experimentation it is romantically thought to be. There are few scientists, and fewer good scientists, pouring different chemicals together just to see what happens or writing papers on a single string of data they collected. No, science, like nearly everything in this world, has been forced to adopt a sort of pyramid structure where each new discovery is a top piece on a pyramid of knowledge generally built by the work of other people past and present. For example, take a modern physicist, Dr. Makesbelieve. Dr. Makesbelieve is interested in the shape of the expansion of our known universe. To start her work in this field, she does not go sit under an apple tree hoping for an epiphany to strike her; instead, she goes to a computer and starts downloading all the articles related to this field of study to see where we are so far in understanding it. She does not necessarily take the time to derive ever single theory currently existing and she does run every experiment that has already been run. She does not learn how to make the telescopes that she may have to use in her work and she does not build her own computer to make sure it does math right. No, she instead climbs the pyramid of knowledge to the top and then starts shaping her contribution to add to the peak. Her piece will then be used by others to build on. This is how science is able to keep progressing. No person has time to learn everything by themselves, but by appending to what is already known, we build our pyramid of knowledge larger faster.

So, maybe your are wondering by now, what is my problem with the gosh darn assembly line? Are any of the consequences actually negative? Yes, I believe there are some consequences of the assembly line methodology that have profound impacts on the way we think and live. Continuing on yesterday’s post, the assembly line is largely responsible for the disconnectedness of our modern world. One problem here is that less people know more – that is, few people have actually important skills in the grand scheme of things and fewer people yet really know much about the big picture.The majority of us known next to nothing about the cars we drive which were likely built almost entirely by people or machines who don’t know much more about the cars either. Think of the production of a single car at the end of a chain where each step that leads to its production is a single link. I am not even sure what the first link is, but at some point you reach a link where there is a man who wants to make money. He knows the cost of building cars and the price he can sell them for, and decides he can make a profit by doing both. He maybe gets a loan from a bank which is also trying to make money by charging a percentage of interest on the loan. The business man then hires all sorts of people either directly or indirectly. He hires people who know how to build a building. He hires people who know how to build robots. He hires people who extract metal ores from the earth. He hires shipping companies and legal firms. He hires  automotive engineers and an advertising team. On and on the list goes. Follow each path and there are countless people involved. Eventually though, the factory comes together, the car is advertised on TV, the machines and factory workers make thousands of cars, and they are sold at a profit. Jo Shmo comes shows up at the dealership, likes what he sees, and drives one home. Well the problem here is that no link in the chain has a good grasp on what they just did. The business man knows he can now afford a 3rd home, the factory worker knows that piece “D7” is welded to “K307” at the locations marked in yellow, and Joe Shmo knows he’s sure to impress his lady Shmo with his new whip. Nothing is inherently bad about these things, but it seems no link in this chain is very aware of the others and what the greater impact of their chain is. No link seemed to do anything wrong, but the chain as a whole is responsible for things like global warming, starvation in Africa, etc. Maybe this sounds over the top, but I honestly believe it to be true. Every person is so obsessed with the thought that if we each work hard on our link in the huge chain that is modern society, we will get good things and be happy. We isolate ourselves from a terrible reality. While no one thinks they are doing anything wrong, we are collectively doing terrible things. America and other industrialized nations have formed so many long chains that hardly anyone can see the bigger picture, we are responsible for creating a hostile world where people are starving and being killed for resources and money. Very nearly everything we use on a daily basis has costs that we don’t pay. Moral and environmental costs are never included in the measures of our country’s success.

Maybe we are not making weapons for other people to kill each other (we are), but we are all part of a system that collectively is hurting and killing people and our planet. Ignorance is not bliss. We are all accountable. Our society has become like a simple minded mob: economic growth = progress = good. We have to consider the costs of these things though. When we include those, does it all really equal goodness? Can we keep isolating ourselves within our single links of a larger chain and turn a blind eye to the horrendous consequences of our collective actions? How can we change the system which is bigger than any one of us? We can’t all wait for the world to change around us.

Well I’ll end this post with two relevant quotes which I hope you consider and enjoy:

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” – Leo Tolstoy

“If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace.” – John Lennon

Much love to all. Have a good day.


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