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The History of the Airplane Assembly Line

written by: Jason C. Chavis•edited by: Laurie Patsalides•updated: 4/25/2010

The history of the airplane assembly line was a slow growth procedure, heavily aligned with the general maturation of the industry itself. From wartime necessity to the largest building in the world, the assembly lines for airplanes are dramatic human creations.

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    Early Assembly Lines

    World War I revolutionized the history of the airplane assembly line. Much of this change was due to necessity since many new aircraft were needed for the war. Prior to this time period, most airplanes were built as one-off inventions or small runs by companies. Leading the forefront of this revolution was the Ford Motor Company, widely known for its installation of the assembly line in the automobile industry.

    Following the war, Ford purchased the Stout Metal Airplane Company in order to continue its manufacturing of airplanes. It's most famous model was the Ford 4AT Trimotor, also known as the Tin Goose. It rolled off the assembly lines in 1926 and became the preeminent passenger plane of the era, capable of carrying 12 individuals. The Tin Goose was also purchased by the U.S. Army for use as a transportation model.

    The Curtiss Airplane and Motor Corporation also joined the Ford Motor Company in the production of thousands of engines and aircraft. One of the most notable airplanes produced during this era was the Jenny, used by the military as a training aircraft and ultimately adopted by many post-war pilots for use in barnstorming shows and the agricultural industry.

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    World War II and the Development of the Industry

    Color Photographed B-17E in Flight 

    The events of World War II changed the dramatics of airplane assembly lines forever. The industry went from a relatively small component of American manufacturing to the largest in the world in just a few short years. In 1939, roughly 6,000 planes were being built on assembly lines in the United States. This doubled each year for the remainder of the conflict, eventually producing over 300,000 aircraft during World War II, many of which are still flying today.

    Airplane assembly line production peaked in 1944. Eighty-one plants were operating in the U.S. and another five were located in Canada. This covered a total area of 175 million square feet of operating space. By 1943, over two million people worked in the industry, growing the revenue from $225 million to $16 billion in just a few years.

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    Boeing and the Modern Airplane Assembly Line

    Boeing 787 first flight 

    During the heyday of major airlines in the late 20th century, companies like Boeing again changed the dynamics of aircraft production. Focusing less on volume and more on the size of the actual vehicles, most modern companies established huge facilities to house the advanced assembly line procedures. Opened in 1967, the largest of these is the Boeing facility in Everett, Washington, north of Seattle. As of 2010, this location is the producer of 747, 767, 777 and 787 commercial aircraft.

    According to the Guinness Book of World Records, this factory is the largest building in the world and covers 472 million cubic feet. It has the ability to house thirty-one completed jetliners. The Everett plant requires its own security department, fire control force, medical clinic, electric power plant and water-treatment facility. It also contains many wetlands and holding ponds to control water run-off.

    In terms of the history of the airplane assembly line, the industry has grown from the simple production of an individual plane to the manufacture of dozens of major commercial airliners capable of carrying thousands of people. While the growth was primarily achieved through the necessity of war, economic development and the technological innovation have also played a major role leading to aircraft like the Airbus and Boeing Dreamliner.

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    References

    Boeing Commercial Assembly: http://www.boeing.com/commercial/facilities/index.html

    "The American Aerospace Industry in World War II" U.S. Centennial of Flight: http://www.centennialofflight.gov/essay/Aerospace/WWII_Industry/Aero7.htm

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    Image Sources

    Color Photographed B-17E in Flight. (Supplied by the U.S. Air Force; Public Domain; http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a6/Color_Photographed_B-17E_in_Flight.jpg)

    Boeing Airbus First Flight. (Supplied by Dave Sizer at Wikimedia Commons; Creative Commons 2.0; http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/01/Boeing_787first_flight.jpg)