Ford Long Beach Assembly Plant Technology and Process

The Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant in Long Beach was designed as a very large space where cars could be put together, primarily from parts made elsewhere, on a moving assembly line. This rapid and efficient way of manufacturing cars kept the cost of each one low enough so that many people in the United States could afford to buy them.

In a 1930 magazine article, Mel Wharton wrote, "Much has been written about the assembly line method of automobile production..." Since that time, much more has been written as scholars as well as journalists have taken an interest in the subject. According to the author of a 1990 review article in the American Historical Review called "Recent Trends in the History of Technology," the best among a number of recent studies of the American system of manufacture, which culminated in the development of the moving assembly line in the automobile industry, is David Houndshell's From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States.

Houndshell describes the evolution of the American system, using precision machinery to make interchangeable parts, and its consequences. One was its impact on labor. Operating the machinery to make the same parts over and over and fitting them together in the same sequence over and over could be done by unskilled or semi-skilled workers. This meant that skilled workers, who commanded higher wages than less skilled workers, need not be hired. It also meant that goods produced by these workers could be made and sold more cheaply. These are the ideas that Henry Ford made even more time and labor efficient on his moving assembly line. Houndsheirs account of this development sets the stage for the opening of the Ford Plant in Long Beach.

But the assembly of automobiles in the plant could not be accomplished without a large variety of other jobs also being done there. Although the jobs on the assembly line did not require special skills, a few of the jobs, in maintaining machines and designing and managing the work place, required specific skills and educational background. When Ford came to Long Beach, as the section on labor indicates, it brought with it a policy of encouraging employees to increase their skills so that they could take increasingly-more responsible and higher paying jobs.

The building also served as a supply center for Ford parts, provided space to train mechanics to maintain and repair Ford cars and was used to assist Ford's marketing program. It served the last function by providing exhibition space for Ford products made locally and elsewhere. And its workings allowed Ford's sales staff to show the public its modern, up to date technological marvels that were used by Ford workers to assemble cars. Wharton wrote of Ford's assembly line that "since the plant opened in Long Beach, thousands of Los Angeles people have seen it for themselves and it never loses its fascination."

To carry out its primary mission to assemble automobiles, the plant had to have the capacity to receive large quantities of materials from which the cars were put together. Initially, its location adjacent to the water and near a major railroad line facilitated this.

When the plant opened, a Ford-owned steamer brought materials from Chester, Pennsylvania by way of the Panama Canal and docked at Long Beach once every two weeks. Each steamer brought 2500 tons of materials which is equal to 7500 freight cars a year. Those freight cars in a solid line would extend from the City Hall in Los Angeles to ten miles beyond Riverside.

At the local Ford dock, two gantry cranes, each with a lifting capacity of five tons, picked up cargo from the ship's holds and deposited it on the second floor of the stock warehouse (CA-82-A-60). Overhead traveling cranes, each with a capacity of five tons, lifted those packages of unassembled parts and either placed them on the second floor or lowered them through wide hatches onto the main floor. From these locations, conveyors moved the materials to the assembly line when they were needed.

Additional materials and parts arrived by rail. A depressed rail line ran the length of the warehouse building to allow workers to unload the rail cars directly on the floor of the building which was at the same level as the boxcar doors. Then workers used the overhead traveling cranes to move them to other locations.

Information about how many cranes were available or how many railroad cars could be accommodated before the pressed steel building was added is unavailable. But documents from 1932 and 1939 report that, at that time, the warehouse and pressed steel buildings had six overhead traveling cranes with a capacity of five tons each. In 1932, the depressed track could accommodate 15 forty foot long rail cars or 13 fifty foot long cars. Sixty-four more could be accommodated outside of a siding. By 1939, the outside siding had been expanded to accommodate 92 rail cars and 18 were reported to fit inside.

In Wharton's article, he described car assembly operations in the new Long Beach Ford Plant. The final assembly line, he wrote, was 560 feet long and moved 106 inches a minute. First to go on the assembly line was the simple frame. Then, successively, shock absorbers, running board brackets, battery carriers, front and rear axles and springs were attached. Next the motor was fitted into place. Then workers added steering gears, radiators, batteries and wheels with tires. At this point the bodies, which were suspended overhead on a conveyor system, were dropped on the chassis and fastened into place. Then the fenders, dust shields, lamps, floor boards and cushions were attached. The gasoline tank was then filled and the headlights lit. Finally a driver jumped behind the steering wheel. The lights were quickly checked against a testing board, and In 61 minutes from the time the naked frame started its journey on the line, the car or truck slips off the final ramp on its own power.

Wharton also described some of the support activities that made the car's final assembly in 61 minutes possible. In a separate building, he wrote, paint supplies are stored, thinned and warmed. A battery of pumps forced the ready to use paint through a series of pipe lines directly to the job. The plant, he reported had 35,000 feet of paint pipe line.

To assemble a car in 61 minutes, workers in the plant used tools powered in several different ways. Electricity was supplied by a Southern California Edison Company plant across Cerritos Channel and east of the Ford Plant. Questionnaires filled out in both 1932 and 1939 report the following power sources. Internally there were three generators, one Ideal Electric with a 25 kilowatt capacity and two Westinghouses with a 20 kilowatt capacity. The plant made steam in three boilers, two manufactured by Erie City that generated 292 horsepower each and one by Badenhausen that generated 300 horsepower. All three could burn rubbish and fuel oil but primarily consumed natural gas provided by the Long Beach City Gas Department; Long Beach and Ford had a special agreement about this supply. Additionally, there were two steam driven engines made by the American Blower Company that generated eight horsepower each. And there were five electric air compressors, two 14 x 16 that had a capacity of 526 cubic feet per minute and three 12 x 10 that had a capacity of 369 cubic feet per minute. Finally, the plant had a Dayten-Dowd Fire Pump with a capacity of 1000 gallons per minute. On-site inspections of the plant in 1990 revealed the continued presence of the steam boilers and fire pump.