In the classic film MODERN TIMES, Charlie Chaplin's little tramp found himself unable to balance his natural enthusiasm for employment, with the endless sameness of the assembly line.
His inability to fit the system, forces him to flee the factory to avoid arrest as a Luddite. Production systems relate to market strengths and weaknesses, not the foibles of human personality.
Assembly-lines and conveyor belts have been part of our industrial landscape for decades. They have provided us with cheap accessible goods and revolutionised the way industry operates. Assembly lines, and mass production have improved our prosperity, health and way of life.
Henry Ford has been popularised as the father of the assembly line. Unveiling the Model T, Henry exclaimed "You can have it in any colour as long as it's black!"
The concept of a single mass produced model type created a social revolution by removing the automobile from the exclusive domain of the rich and creating the environment for mass ownership of personal transport.
With the benefits came the costs. Cars could be produced in their millions, but the development of their assembly line characteristics made them hard to change and adopt new technology. It is this contradiction between making personal transport cheap and accessible and introducing new technology that has produced a crisis in the car industry. But, also an opportunity to encourage new ideas and systems to build PERFECT WHEELS personal transport.
Until recently, assembly line and car production techniques have demanded reduced unit cost by ensuring standardisation of production and materials. U.S and European car manufacturers have considered the single model lint as the best way of reducing costs and optimising design. Like the Model T, the Volkswagen Beetle, 2CV and the Mini, were successful ways of producing cars at prices people could afford. They required little design change and relied on efficient assembly line techniques and production philosophy. Each worker on the assembly line had a dedicated job with weeks of supplies reducing inefficiency and interruption of production. Once systems like this were been created, the costs of replacing the infrastructure stifled technological change and design flexibility.
Variation of shape and adjustments to existing technology may not be particularly difficult, adoption of basic change could mean massive rebuilding of plant and skills.
In the past, design and production techniques have conspired to make model changes difficult and lengthy.
Starting with conceptual design, sketches were made, then small model replicas, then full size replicas in clay. From the clay model eventually a prototype with power train, chassis or frame. After performance and crash testing, tooling up of the production line. Tooling-up required expensive machine engineering and finally installation. Workers had to be retrained to operate new tools and methods. The process was slow, expensive and hardly innovative.
Because the costs of designing and producing new models has been so great, and tooling costs even greater, there's been little incentive to look for new concepts to radically alter either the system of production, materials used, or workers skills. Until, competition and technology generates sufficient force to make the automobile industry change.
The competition has come by the growth of Oriental producers. Having had no ongoing infrastructure to protect, or indeed no automobile industry to speak of, they were able to start with a clean sheet, and seek new ideas for mass production. As they could not finance weeks of supplies for their assembly lines, they found that advantages could be gained by flexible design development and production techniques. They could encourage small parts producers to be innovative and extremely cost competitive, and flexible enough to rapidly change from one design to another. This meant that Japanese producers for example, could implement model changes at three times the speed of their American and European counterparts.
The significance of this is that new technology is adopted faster and beats the competition to the market place.
Because the speed of design change has been reduced, this creates immense pressure for innovation amongst the suppliers to the Japanese car industry. Not only must they improve the design of their existing products, but they must offer up new designs to ensure that competitors can't strike first.
Western producers have been quick to cast a withering glance at the Eastern manufacturers. They accuse them of uncompetitive behaviour, theft of technology, and distortion of trade.
In the 1880's British clock makers complained that their American counterparts stole technology, operated unfair trading practices, and distorted trade. The reality was that American clock makers were the first to implement mass production techniques. They produced cheaper, quality clocks, incorporating the latest clockwork technology, much of it European, and much of it unable to be used by Europeans because of the structure and restrictions of their industry.
Oriental producers don't have a monopoly on good design, engineering and production techniques. Much of the knowledge they have used to become successful, is common to everyone. They have had the will and opportunity to use it. As any builder will tell you, it is easier and cheaper to build from scratch than rebuild existing fabric.
Auto-makers are universally beginning to understand that they must implement change quickly to be successful. Part of that change is the ability to absorb new technologies and apply existing structure to improve energy and production efficiency.
New techniques of computer aided design ( CAD ) provide systems that can eliminate much of the time consuming building of models. New softwares can test designs to ensure that they are practical and safe. Tests in computer simulated wind tunnels, simulated engines, crashes, performance and production techniques, have changed the horizons for producers.
Computer design technology can also implement engineering needs for production tooling, rapidly and cost-effectively engineer the tools necessary to build new models, reducing retooling costs dramatically.
Design technology can now analyse materials before they have been made, creating characteristic models, then testing them on systems that can for example, crash cars against walls before producing the first screw.
The effect of these innovations in design is the shifting of financial risk in developing new technology. In the past, the risk always fell at the start of the design cycle; building prototypes, crashing them, rebuilding them, stressing them and trying to work out the best methods of production.
Because the cash risk occurred in the early stages of development, designers were made to rely on known technology. Optimising old technology has been the tradition of the car industry, while new technologies have always offered dangers that could cause loss of investment. Unless there is a compelling reason by way of economy or legislation, new design or technology innovations are always likely to fall victim to inertia. Why build a better mousetrap when the old one kills mice.
Design and production techniques are now in a stage of flux. New computer aided design techniques, new production technology, materials, economics, and legislation require change in production philosophy. Some builders have recognised these changes and are benefiting from the results. Others are adapting new technologies to old tools and skills. The revolution in design and production technology does not mean that Detroit should be laid waste and assembly lines and plants closed. It does mean that the way in which tools and materials are used and the skills of those using them will require adaption.
The benefits of change are enormous. Like the changes that created Henry Ford's flivver, the ability to adapt to new designs, materials, and production philosophy, could herald the kind of growth that originally inspired the early mass producers.
If the personal transporter can be produced in the varieties and of the materials suggested in this series, then the stimulation to demand could be as great as the demand created by the accessibility of the Model T.
PERFECT WHEELS personal transport is not outlandish far fetched and expensive technology that cannot be produced economically. It is a variety of technologies that exist, can be designed and produced, to reflect the aspirations and needs of the consumer. The technologies suggested are not outside the production capabilities or knowledge of producers.
Volvo has built the Gas Turbine Electric car. Ford has built plastic engines, Renault has built plastic cars, and Volkswagen has built the 100% recyclable car.
What all these manufacturers have accomplished, is to project new technologies through new design and production ideas. They have undertaken risks that have paid dividends and sometimes not. Ford decided not to put its plastic engine into production, but they learned about new heat resistant materials, the Renault Espace has started a design and production revolution, and is one of the most successful new designs in years.
Design and production methods change because of need; economic, political or commercial.
The production revolution led by Henry Ford popularised the motor car. He took the risk that America would want a mass produced inexpensive personal transporter. The model T was a success because it was produced, not because consumers created it, they demanded it.
The innovation was as much to do with generating consumer interest as building assembly lines, and this argument has been the same with every successful technology that has appeared since. The Volkswagen Beetle, the Mini and now low volume Japanese cars.
Implementation of new ideas and technology by innovative and advanced production techniques pays dividends beyond producing the PERFECT WHEELS transporter. It stimulates, and frees innovative thinking and satisfies consumer demands for cleaner, smarter and safer personal transport.
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