13 May, 24

Important Manufacturing Milestones Over the Past 100 Years

Charlie McFarlaneBLOGNo Comments

Over the past century, manufacturing has witnessed remarkable transformations, driven by technological advancements and the relentless pursuit of efficiency.

National Manufacturing Day serves as a powerful reminder of the industry’s pivotal role in shaping the modern world – so, join us as we explore some of the most significant milestones over the last 100 years.


Early 20th Century

The Assembly Line

The concept of the assembly line was introduced slightly more than 100 years ago (to the automobile industry initially). However, it was nothing new at the time – for example, 12th Century shipbuilding in Venice used a similar system, where ships were moved down a canal with additional parts fitted each step of the way.

Regardless, its introduction to the modern manufacturing industry set the stage for mass production.

Before its emergence, general manufacturing processes were characterised by craft production or the workshop system, where goods were produced by highly skilled workers.

While this bespoke approach catered to individual customer preferences, it was time-consuming and costly. Production output was limited by the speed and skill of individual workers and the capacity for mass production was non-existent, making goods more expensive and less accessible to the general population.

The early stages of industrialisation began to shift this paradigm with the introduction of mechanisation and the factory system, yet many processes still relied heavily on manual labour and individual skill.

Ransom E. Olds

The shift to assembly line manufacturing dramatically increased efficiency, reduced production costs, and made goods accessible to a wider audience.

The assembly line was patented in 1901 by car manufacturer, Ransom E. Olds. His method led his company to produce 20 units per day which culminated in a 500% increase in output in the following year.

Henry Ford

Henry Ford adopted the concept in 1913. He improved on the approach created by Olds by introducing a conveyor system and moving platforms, where each chassis was towed by a rope between stations. As a result, it was significantly quicker to produce a single Ford Model T – in total, it took just 93 minutes, down from 12 hours.

This breakthrough not only made cars more affordable but also set a new standard for mass production, influencing countless industries beyond automotive manufacturing.

The Unified Assembly Line

Another breakthrough in the automotive industry was the unified assembly line, also known as the Buick assembly line. The Buick Motor Company created a more advanced conveyor system that ramped up production. It consisted of three different lines within one building that were supplied by various conveyors delivering the parts required at each stage.

For example, completed and tested engines were transported through a tunnel from another facility more than half a mile away, while sheet metal parts were transported by conveyor from the enamel plant.

The three assembly lines handled different stages of assembly, and they crossed at various points on platforms built above them, where minor assembly operations were performed. Each unified line allowed the company to produce 1,300 cars per day.


Mid-20th Century: The Rise of Lean Manufacturing and Automation

Numerical Control

The introduction of numerical control (NC) in the 1940s and 1950s marked the beginning of automation in manufacturing. Developed for the United States Air Force by John T. Parsons and MIT, NC machines used punched tape to control machine tools. Its first application was for an experimental milling machine that used motorised axes to produce helicopter blades.

This paved the way for computer numerical control (CNC), which emerged in the 1960s, allowing for even greater precision and flexibility in manufacturing processes. The CNC concept also influenced Electron Beam Machining, Electrical Discharge Machining, and Photochemical Machining.

Lean Manufacturing

The concept of Lean Manufacturing had been around long before Toyota popularised it from 1937 onwards. Toyota’s Lean production system took inspiration from some of Ford’s methods, combined with an intensive focus on continuous improvement and the desire to eliminate waste.

This led to the application of Lean in Toyota’s operations, which came to be known as the Toyota Production System. The approach became more robust over the years before eventually being implemented in all of Toyota’s plants by 1962.

Lean made its way to the West in the 70s. The term became official in the 90s thanks to publications such as ‘Lean Thinking’ and ‘The Machine that Changed the World’.

Early Robotics

This era witnessed significant milestones that laid the foundation for modern industrial automation and robotics.

1954: The First Programmable Robot

George Devol invented the first digitally operated and programmable robot in 1954, which he called the “Unimate.” This invention is considered the birth of robotic automation in manufacturing.

1961: Unimate Gets to Work

Unimate was put to work for the first time on a General Motors assembly line in Ewing Township, New Jersey, in 1961, and was used to perform hazardous tasks. This marked the first real use of robots in manufacturing.

1966: Shakey the Robot

Developed by Stanford Research Institute, Shakey was the first general-purpose mobile robot to be able to reason about its own actions. While not a manufacturing robot, Shakey’s development was significant for the field, influencing the development of robotic perception and autonomous navigation.

In fact, Shakey was dubbed as ‘the first electronic person’ given its ability for perception and reasoning about its surroundings. In addition, it could understand around 100 words of English, which it translated into the mathematical formulas it required to operate.

1973: The First Robotic Arm

The KUKA company developed the FAMULUS, which was the first industrial robot with six electromechanically driven axes, offering more flexibility and precision in tasks such as welding and parts assembly.

1974: The Development of SCARA Robots

Hiroshi Makino, a professor at Yamanashi University in Japan, developed the Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arm (SCARA). This robot was designed specifically for high-speed assembly tasks, transforming precision manufacturing and electronic assembly processes.

1978: The PUMA (Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly) Robot

Developed by Victor Scheinman at Unimation, in cooperation with General Motors, the PUMA robot was designed for assembly tasks that required more dexterity and flexibility. It became a staple in automotive factories and research laboratories.

1980s: The Expansion of Robotic Applications

The 1980s saw a significant expansion in the use of robots for a wide range of manufacturing tasks beyond assembly, including welding, painting, and material handling. This decade also witnessed the introduction of more advanced control systems and programming interfaces, making robots more versatile and easier to integrate into various manufacturing processes


Late 20th Century: The Digital Revolution

The late 20th century witnessed the digital revolution, which brought profound changes to the manufacturing industry, significantly altering how products were designed and produced, and how equipment was maintained.

Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM)

The introduction of CAD and CAM technologies in the 1970s and 1980s was pivotal. CAD software enabled engineers and designers to create detailed 3D models of products, parts, and components on computers, making the design process more efficient and significantly reducing the time and cost associated with manual drafting.

CAM systems took these CAD-created models and translated them into commands for manufacturing machinery, automating the production process and allowing for more complex and precise manufacturing than ever before.

The combination of CAD and CAM systems enabled the seamless integration of design and manufacturing processes, enabling rapid prototyping, customisation, and improvements in product quality.

Other Software

As well as CAD and CAM, this period saw the introduction of many new systems that improved manufacturing operations.

Maintenance Management Software

Maintenance software enhances the efficiency of manufacturing plants by automating the scheduling of maintenance, tracking of work orders, management of inventory, and analysis of maintenance data. This technology allows for predictive maintenance strategies, minimising downtime and extending the life of machinery.

ERP Systems

Enterprise Resource Planning Systems integrate all facets of an operation, including product planning, development, manufacturing processes, sales, and marketing in a single system.

This software became essential for manufacturers to respond quickly to market changes and manage complex supply chains in an increasingly globalised economy.

CNC software

These programs brought greater control, allowing for high precision and automation in tasks such as drilling, milling, and turning.

Other influential innovations included Product Lifecycle Management Systems, Manufacturing Execution Systems, Quality Management Systems, and Supply Chain Management software – to name just a few.

Developments in Robotics

During the late 20th century, robotics underwent significant transformations, marked by the enhanced precision, speed, flexibility, and safety of robotic systems.

Robots could now be re-programmed more easily for various tasks, extending their application beyond traditional roles and enabling them to be used for intricate processes.

This era also saw a broadening in the adoption of robotics across a diverse range of industries beyond automotive and electronics, including pharmaceuticals, and food and beverage.

In addition, there was an increase in user-friendly programming environments, making robotics more accessible to a wider audience.


The 21st Century

Industry 4.0 and Smart Manufacturing

The emergence of Industry 4.0 is characterised by the integration of more advanced digital technologies into manufacturing processes, including Internet of Things (IoT) devices, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and big data analytics.

These technologies can be combined to create smart factories where machinery and equipment can improve processes through self-optimisation and automation.

Additive Manufacturing

The turn of the century brought with it the advent of 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, which has revolutionised prototyping and production. It allows for the direct fabrication of complex, customised parts with minimal waste, opening up new possibilities in design, manufacturing speed, and customisation.

Advanced Robotics and Cobots

The deployment of advanced robotics, including collaborative robots (cobots), has expanded. Cobots are designed to work alongside humans, enhancing safety and efficiency without the need for extensive safety caging.

Robots are also being used more frequently for inspection and maintenance tasks, reducing the need for workers to access hazardous areas.



The milestones of the past 100 years illustrate the industry’s remarkable journey from the assembly line to Industry 4.0. National Manufacturing Day offers an opportunity to reflect on these achievements and look forward to future developments.

Here at Idhammar Systems, we created the first commercially available maintenance management system and continue to innovate, redefining the future of maintenance. To inquire about our solutions or book a demo, contact us today.

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