An assembly line worker performs a task, sometimes hundreds of time per day, that’s part of assembling a product. In most cases, the product being assembled is moved from worker to worker and parts are added sequentially. Many products, such as televisions, automobiles and computers are assembled this way. Some operations use workgroups instead of assigning a single task to each assembly line worker. The workgroup is responsible for a number of closely-related tasks, and the workers rotate among the different jobs.
There’s a great deal of specialization on an assembly line. If a task calls for driving a screw into a pre-drilled hole, one worker will drill the hole, and another will drive the screw. This is more efficient and economical than having the same worker drill the hole and then drive the screw. If an assembly line worker is given more than a single task, all will be closely-related; for instance, a worker’s job may be to drill three holes, or to drive three screws into them. It will slow down the line significantly if the worker has to switch tools and jobs.
Unnecessary movement, such as putting down a tool and picking up another, wastes time. Assembly line jobs are designed with a minimum of movement, and workers are carefully trained to do them a single way. Deviation isn’t permitted, and workers are monitored to ensure that they do their jobs as taught. They’re responsible only for the task assigned. Other tasks, such as ensuring a good supply of the necessary parts, are assigned to other workers.
Keeping the assembly line running is of paramount importance. Each assembly line worker must remain at the workstation at all times when the assembly line is running, because leaving the line means that a task won’t get done, and the line will back up. By practice and by law, assembly line workers are given periodic rest breaks en masse and the line is shut down for these breaks; workers are expected to attend to their personal needs during these breaks. Most operations have contingency plans to address situations when a worker must leave the line due to an emergency, such as an illness or injury.
Early assembly lines were inherently dangerous, and injuries were common. The horrors exposed in The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel about the American meatpacking industry, had equally shocking counterparts in manufacturing. Worker safety is now a much more important consideration in the setup and operation of assembly lines. Intense boredom and alienation are some psychological problems workers sometimes face. Another relatively common problem experienced by assembly line workers is stress caused by the pressure of being constantly monitored while on the job.
The introduction of assembly lines to the manufacturing process changed the face of American society. Highly-skilled craftsmen were no longer required; semi-skilled workers were trained in the individual tasks and paid very well. They assembled their products in far less time than the traditional method, driving down manufacturing costs and retail prices, and ultimately were able to afford to purchase the automobiles they were assembling. This cycle is often credited for the creation of the middle class in the US.