Strong-arm tactics;The big picture

2nd April 1999 at 01:00
(Photograph) - When Henry Ford hit upon the idea of a production line he found the holy grail of manufacturing. His Model T was pretty basic - two doors, four wheels and any colour you like so long as it's black - making it ideally suited to the simple, repetitive tasks of a production line.

But there was a problem: production line work was boring. Technology came to the rescue and machines then robots began to take over the laborious manufacturing tasks from humans. In the 1970s, a famous advert for the Fiat Strada set the eerily graceful industrial ballet of arc welding automatons like these to classical music, with the slogan "built by robots, driven by humans".

Robots had advantages - they never went on strike and could work around the clock without complaint. But the mechanised production line was an inflexible beast and the whole thing ground to a halt if anything went wrong. Since cars were easily the most complex product made in this way, breakdowns were not uncommon, so humans and robots started sharing the work. New philosophies of "lean production" and "agile manufacturing" gave greater responsibility to workers to find labour-saving solutions and teamwork nurtured a sense of achievement.

Making motor cars has been the most important industry of the 20th century but in such a competitive market only the strong have survived - employment in car manufacturing is a quarter what it was 25 years ago. Workers on the line at Nissan in Sunderland, the most efficient car factory in Europe where each person produces 98 cars a year, have 40 seconds to work on each car before the next one arrives. Every working day is a race against time - in the the two minutes it has taken you to read this another six cars have been produced in this country.

Photograph by telegraph colour library.

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