The Model T Ford Project: A “Model” for Product and Process Innovation

20 July 2017
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Up until the early 20th century the world viewed the automobile as a luxury item built for the elite of society.  Cars were complicated in their use and required a significant investment that the average person could not afford.  Then in 1908, Henry Ford introduced the Model T Ford that did not only revolutionize the world’s perspective on personal transportation for the masses but also re-invented the manufacturing process still applied over 100 years later.  Although we have seen improvements to his original process, with the development of lean manufacturing, JIT, Six Sigma, Kanban, and others, the core philosophy of streamlining production first introduced to the world by Ford still remains true for the manufacturer of the 21st century.

Henry Ford demonstrated to the world that the right combination of innovation, quality production and streamline processes is what sets a new product apart in the marketplace.

Vision

More than anything, it was the vision of the Model T Ford that revolutionized the manufacturing process of its time (still implemented today).  Henry Ford’s vision was to build an automobile for the masses.  At the time an unthinkable goal, Ford developed a process that would reduce the effort and material to mass produce cars that delivered a quality product to the average American citizen that resided in both rural and urban settings.  By 1908 he introduced his first iteration of the Model T Ford at the retail price of $850 ($20,709 in today’s market) when competing cars were being sold anywhere from $2000-$3000 (roughly $50,000-$75,000 in today’s market).

Going against popular belief and the advice of his shareholders, Henry Ford was successful in his vision in which the final production of the Model T Ford resulted with 48% of the world’s market share of automobiles selling 15 million vehicles during the model T’s tenure from 1908-1927.  More importantly, Ford’s vision of a car for the masses in the process revolutionized manufacturing by popularizing the assembly line, introducing vertical integration, and doubling the pay of unskilled workers at the time to 5 dollars a day.  As a result, a combination of innovative design, processes, and employee incentives were established along the way.

Execution

Designed by Childe Harold Wills, Joseph A. Galamb and Eugene Farkas, the Model T Ford was a 2 year process of first discovering durable and cost efficient materials, as well as interchangeable parts to reduce the cost of its production.  Originally production was executed in its traditional form producing only 11 cars in its first month.  As months and years passed, Ford perfected the assembly line process through automation and the reduction of necessary skills required to produce the Model T.  By 1910, the production process took a total of 93 minutes and Ford was producing more cars than all the automakers combined with only a fraction of the workers of  the entire auto industry.

From the execution point of view, the Model T Ford was a legendary success based on carefully designed repeatable processes that were tailor made for its time.  Right down to the Model T’s color black (the only color offered in later models due to its durability and cost), Ford’s ability to constantly improve the manufacturing process is what had defined his success and redefined the way manufacturers from that point on would view their our development and production processes.

Outcome

The Model T Ford changed the way product development and innovation was approached – all this without the use of manufacturing project management software.  Ford may have not invented these processes; however he popularized its application through the Model T Ford.  He clearly made the case that the constant improvement of the processes he employed were as important as the product itself.  As a benchmark in production, Ford’s strategic processes have been benefited by consumers for over 100 years with the mass production of the telephone, personal computer and mobile devices, to name a few.

In 2008 to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the Model T, the Ford Motor Company commissioned a group of design students to rethink the Model T of the future.  The purpose of this project was to showcase that the best innovations move beyond design and demonstrate a direct impact on society.  After all, the Model T’s societal impact of linking people closer together remains true today; where we see the accessibility of new technologies to the masses is increasingly changing the way people interact with the world at large.

Fun Fact – Did you know that in 1914 Ford with 13,000 employees produced about 300,000 cars while 299 other companies with 66,350 employees produced about 280,000 vehicles?

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