25 August 2020

Henry Ford Didn’t Invent the Assembly Line

If “Who invented the assembly line?” were the only question on a test administered to Adjuvant team members, every one of us probably would have failed. Despite his close association with the concept, Henry Ford was not in fact the original inventor of the assembly line. We are not qualified to debate the interesting history of this innovation, but it certainly seems like the poster child for the old adage that “success has a thousand mothers, while failure has none.” Assembly line concepts can be traced back as far as a Venetian ship-building in 1100, with more modern applications in 19th century slaughterhouses comfortably pre-dating Ford’s work.

It’s not surprising however that Ford is so closely linked with this incredible innovation, given that he and his team introduced a number of important enhancements to the concept and implemented it at a scale that drove massive cost reductions in what had up until that point been a technology (automobiles) accessible only to the rich. As competitors were forced to copy these efficiencies in order to stay in business, an entire industry embraced assembly line innovations and—over time—reliable, high-quality, affordable automobiles became a fixture of middle-class life. Thanks to the incremental improvements and industrialization of assembly line concepts at Ford, the ownership of an automobile migrated from an inaccessible luxury to a readily-attainable convenience for the average citizen.

In 1907, Henry Ford announced his goal for the Ford Motor Company: to create “a motor car for the great multitude.” At that time, automobiles were expensive, custom-made machines.[1]

Similarly, one of Adjuvant’s latest portfolio companies, Univercells, is also poised to repackage and enhance a constellation of nascent manufacturing innovations in a way that could drive major changes in how and where essential biologics are produced. The Univercells team did not independently invent the general underlying concepts (high-intensity adherent cell culture, single-use technologies, continuous bioprocessing, next-generation filtration and purification, just to name a few), but they are enhancing and integrating them into a suite of solutions that could ultimately enable the distributed manufacturing of highly complex vaccines and biotherapeutics at a fraction of the cost of legacy approaches. Reducing the capital expenditures necessary to establish manufacturing capacity should translate into a more flexible, resilient, and affordable source of these essential products. This goal underpins Univercells’ overarching objective of making “Biologics for all.” With any luck, this will help us move from a more fragile centralized production system and democratize access to biotherapeutics in the same way Henry Ford succeeded in manufacturing “a motor car for the great multitude.”

[1] https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/dt13as.html