Commentary

The moving assembly line made mass production possible and changed the world. But what if it turned out it really wasn’t that good of an idea after all?

That’s the premise of a book titled “What Is Good For General Motors?” by Thomas Crumm, who spent his career at GM.

Crumm’s thesis is that the decline in American manufacturing actually started when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line to automotive manufacturing.

Ford, according to Crumm, adopted the assembly line very reluctantly. It took two years for his manufacturing people, led by the brilliant Charlie Sorenson, to convince him to put it into practice.

Though lured by the mass production the moving assembly line offered, Crumm says Ford also knew it would destroy the esprit de corps of the craftsmen who, until then, built Ford’s cars one-at-a-time in teams.

After instituting the new production system, Crumm claims 12,000 of Ford’s 14,000 employees soon quit the company. They preferred to look for new jobs rather than stand in place like prisoners doing the repetitive, monotonous work required by the moving line.

This is the real reason Ford started paying the then-lavish wage of $5 per day. Employee turnover became such a massive problem he had to bribe workers with the highest wages in the world to get them to stay.

Assembly-line work was brutal and led to an alienated workforce. That led to the formation of the United Auto Workers union and an industrial relationship forged in violence and bloodshed that remains contentious today.

Crumm believes it’s possible to return to the craftsmanship ethic of the 19th century coachbuilders by doing away with the assembly line as we know it.

His idea is to use moving platforms where teams, each under the direction of a master craftsman, assemble cars. The platforms would move down the assembly plant, so teams have access to the machinery and tools they need.

He says 500 workers could build up to 20 different models at a time, with an output of 200 cars a day. His vision is to build a lot of these plants to get the volume needed, at less cost than today’s massive facilities.

This kind of team approach has been used to some extent by Volvo, Saab and Saturn, but Crumm wants to take it to another level. He calls for in-sourcing almost all the major components in a vehicle, and having the teams make those parts as well. He believes that with today’s advanced machine tools and flexible, low-cost tooling, skilled craftsmen could make most components on their own.

For the record, Crumm has extensive automotive experience. He’s the third-generation of a family of automotive craftsmen who hail from Flint, MI.

A General Motors Institute graduate, he had extensive manufacturing and engineering assignments. He played a role in the planning of Saturn, as well as strategic planning at GM. His ideas reflect an insider’s knowledge, backed up by an appreciation of how the industry got to where it is today.

I think Crumm is really onto something. He’s offering up a new business model that could revolutionize the industry. The Lincoln brand, the Corvette line and others are perfect opportunities to test his ideas.

John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit, and “Autoline Daily” the online video newscast.