Henry Ford is famously quoted as saying, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
While Ford delivered on technology beyond the dreams of equine trainers, perhaps his most important innovation, that of organized manufacturing on a massive scale, has grown well past the boundaries of even his imagination.
The Most Influential Factories of All Time
It isn’t surprising, then, that of the ten most recognized manufacturing plants in history, seven of them make automobiles and the other three are involved in aeronautics. Since the industrial revolution, it has been the development of transportation that has captured the spark of manufacturing prowess and run with it.
Seven of these also happen to have been located in the United States, where automobile manufacturing on a massive scale became a part of the cultural zeitgeist. From the Ford River Rouge Complex in Dearborn, Michigan in the late 1920s to Tesla’s Gigafactory coming in 2020, each of the facilities listed here have had a unique impact on history.
What other lessons can we take from these massive manufacturing plants?
THE FIAT FACTORY (1923)
The very first plant featured is the Fiat factory. Built in 1923, its major innovation was the ability to build a car from raw materials—everything within the same complex. The finished product could even be tested on a track on the roof. The lesson here is about how best to keep manufacturing concerns entirely in house. This allowed the factory to produce an astronomical number of vehicles—almost 5,000 a day.
THE FORD RIVER ROUGE COMPLEX (1928)
At 16 million square feet, this was the largest factory setting in the world in its heyday. Something to take from this plant is to go with the flow. The complex was originally built to design anti-submarine boats and then tractors, only to run the gamut of autos from the Model A to Ford F150s over its almost 100-year history.
TOYOTA HANSHO PLANT (1938)
A model of efficiency, the Hansho Plant used a “just in time” method to only manufacture the parts that were necessary at the moment they were needed. It incorporated what was called the Kanban System, which uses inventory cards to inform workers exactly what to make and when. The take away is obvious: be expedient.
BELVIDERE ASSEMBLY PLANT (1965)
This massive plant demonstrates longevity through innovation. Always at the forefront of technology, the factory became the first Chrysler plant to use a fully automated body shop consisting entirely of robotics in 2006, employing over 750 robots.
NASA VEHICLE ASSEMBLY PLANT (1966)
In volume, this is one of the largest buildings in the world and has the tallest single story structure on the planet. Though currently retired, the drive of the space race was enough to make this dream a reality. The lesson here might be not to limit your expectations—there is a factory that can manufacture any product, no matter how complex.
BOEING EVERETT FACTORY (1967)
The largest building by volume in the world (three times the size of the NASA plant), this factory is truly it’s own city complex. Here workers are protected by a factory-specific fire department and are treated to fully staffed daycare centers. It takes a village to make a plane and anticipating the larger needs of workers is the reason this plant continues to be successful.
MITSUBISHI MOTORS NORTH AMERICA (1988)
A rags to riches tale, this plant was one of the worst in terms of efficiency in 1998. Just five years later, however, protocols put in place transformed the plant with assembly time nearly cut in half. Though the facility saw difficult times in the late 90s, the management chose to pivot rather than give up and their plan showed amazing results in only a few years.
JEAN-LUC LAGARDERE PLANT (2005)
At the LaGardere plant where they make the world’s largest passenger planes—the AirBus A380—they did not even wait for the factory to be finished to begin assembly of the first products. There is no need to wait for one thing to finish before anticipating the next step.
TESLA FACTORY (2012)
The Tesla Factory takes the modern life of employees into consideration with it’s own cafeteria, gym, health center, and outdoor patios. One of the initial moves of the renovation and expansion after purchasing the factory was to put in skylights to let in more natural light. A motivated workforce is a better workforce and work environment matters. Those that work at Tesla believe in their products and that management is looking out for them.
TESLA GIGAFACTORY (2020)
Tesla is leaping into the future with a wave of gigafactories designed to help manufacture its ambitious 500,000 automobiles per year. The concept is to be in the position to flood the market with electric cars as soon as is possible. This lofty goal necessitates a huge amount of lithium batteries, but that is a challenge Tesla is prepared to take on. This kind of bold look to the future is a critical way to remain competitive as aspects of a business change.
Innovations Incorporating the Old and New Disruption
While giant manufacturing plants are impressive, the wave of the future might be cooperation. For example, how many times have you ordered a small item only to have it arrive in a large box (or several large boxes)?
As a large corporation, Amazon can handle that kind of waste in the interest of efficiencies. However, for many SMEs, this kind of wastefulness can be a killer.
By using third party vendors and keeping the supply chain agile, fulfillment companies such as Red Stag Fulfillment are looking at ways to incorporate both mainstream advancement in technology as well as ways to work with SMEs. With third party innovation, the factory that once sat in one place, now has a more global footprint that with modern logistics can run similarly to one enormous building.
Do you think we’ll see more gigafactories, or cooperation?