An assembly line worker completes a task hundreds of times per day as part of the product assembly process. Most of the time, the product being assembled is passed from one worker to the next, with parts being added in a sequential order. This is how many products, such as televisions, automobiles, and computers, are put together. Instead of assigning a single task to each assembly line worker, some operations use workgroups. The workgroup is in charge of a number of closely related tasks, and the employees rotate between them.
On an assembly line, there is a lot of specialization. If a task requires drilling a hole and then driving a screw into it, one worker will drill the hole and another will drive the screw. It is more efficient and cost-effective to have the same employee drill the hole and then drive the screw. If an assembly line worker is given multiple tasks, they will all be related; for example, a worker’s job might be to drill three holes or drive three screws into them. If the worker has to switch tools and jobs, the line will be significantly slowed.
Time is wasted unnecessary movement, such as putting down one tool and picking up another. Assembly line jobs are designed to require the least amount of movement possible, and workers are carefully trained to complete them in a single motion. Deviation is not tolerated, and employees are closely monitored to ensure that they perform their duties as instructed. They are only accountable for the task at hand. Other workers are in charge of other tasks, such as ensuring a steady supply of necessary parts.
The assembly line must remain operational at all times. When the assembly line is running, each worker must remain at their workstation at all times, because leaving the line means a task will not be completed, and the line will back up. 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, according to practice and law. Most businesses have contingency plans in place to deal with situations where a worker is forced to leave the line due to an emergency, such as illness or injury.
Assemblies were inherently dangerous in the beginning, and injuries were common. The horrors depicted in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle, about the American meatpacking industry, had manufacturing counterparts that were equally shocking. In the setup and operation of assembly lines, worker safety is now a much more important consideration. Workers may experience intense boredom and alienation as a result of their work. Another relatively common issue faced assembly line workers is stress brought on the constant pressure of being watched while on the job.
Assembly lines revolutionized the manufacturing process and forever changed the face of American society. Highly skilled craftsmen were no longer required; instead, semi-skilled workers were trained in specific tasks and well compensated. They were able to afford to buy the automobiles they were assembling because they assembled them in far less time than the traditional method, driving down manufacturing costs and retail prices. This cycle is often credited with establishing the middle class in the United States.