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You can have any colour, as long as it's black

Motor vehicle manufacturing as a parallel to document engineering

By Tony Self

An allegory is a means of representing an idea using symbolic representation. It is a kind of extended metaphor. It occurs to me that motor vehicle manufacturing can be used as an allegory for the business of technical communication. Let me explain... from the beginning.

The motor car was invented in Europe (Germany, to be specific), and at the start of the 20th Century, most motor vehicles were made in Europe. We may think of the United States as the home of the motor car, but in 1902, a total of 314 cars was produced in America. By contrast, the most prolific motor manufacturing country, France, produced 23,000 cars in that same year. Belgium was producing far more cars than the US. But just four years later, in 1906, the USA overtook all other car manufacturing nations when it produced 58,000 cars. So how did the US transform from a car manufacturing backwater to a powerhouse? One reason was that America was a wealthy country, and at the start of the 20th century, only rich people could afford cars. Although America had lots of rich people, for motor vehicle manufacturing to be a big industry, it needed to develop a mass market. http://www.uniquecarsandparts.com.au/lost_marques.htm

The man credited with working out how to create a mass market for cars was Henry Ford. He started with the premise that for more people to be able to afford cars, cars needed to be cheaper. This idea sounds simple enough, but in reality, it meant bringing the cost of a car down from around $4000 (twice the average annual income) to less than $1000. Different manufacturing ideas had already been introduced, such as outsourcing (the Olds company came up with this when their factory burned down) and using standardised parts that could be interchanged among several models (an idea developed by Cadillac). Remember, this is an allegory, so the words "outsourcing" and "interchange" are important to note.

In 1908, Henry Ford introduced the "assembly line" for motor vehicle construction. The first car model to be produced on the production line was the Model T. The assembly or production line replaced the "coachbuilding" method of building cars (where cars were built individually, one by one).

The Model T Ford

Ford's assembly line was what we would now call "transformative process engineering". The assembly line was built on a foundation of standardisation: standard processes to produce simple components in a standardised production system. To understand how standardisation created such an opportunity for efficiency, we need to know the methods that preceded those of Ford. (The terms "standard processes", "simple components", and "standardised production systems" are key to the allegory.)

Coachbuilding Tradition

Before the assembly line, motor vehicles were made by artisans. Purchasing a motor vehicle was a two-step process: first you would buy a chassis (from a "chassis maker"), and then you would take it to a "coachbuilder". The chassis maker would supply the chassis, the drive train (engine, gears, axles and wheels), the suspension, the radiator, and the steering system. The coachbuilder would build a body for the chassis to suit the customer's needs. If the customer needed four seats, the coachbuilder would build a four-seat cabin. If the customer needed a small truck, the coachbuilder would build a two-seat cabin with a tray on the same chassis. The chassis maker worked in metal, and the coachbuilder worked in wood and leather. Sometimes, chassis makers and coachbuilders would team up to offer a packaged product. For example, Fisher Body teamed up with Cadillac to build all the closed-body Cadillacs of the 1910s.


The Chassis Maker's Product - Royce 15196


The Coachbuilder's Boast - No Two Alike

Even after Henry Ford's assembly line had transformed manufacturing and half of all cars in America were Model Ts, coachbuilding persisted.

In sharp contrast to Ford, Rolls-Royce was very slow to embrace the assembly line. Up until World War II, every Rolls-Royce was produced by artisans in the coachbuilding tradition, as a rolling chassis to be later sent to an independent coachbuilder.

In the 1960s, it became popular for the wealthy to use coachbuilders as a way of creating exclusive and expensive versions of mass-produced (assembly line) cars, including the humble Mini. Hooper, the Rolls-Royce coachbuilders, created the first luxury Mini in 1963 at four times the cost of a standard Mini. The most famous of the Hooper Minis was one owned by Peter Sellers; this car featured a hand-stencilled wicker-work effect body decoration. Radford Coachbuilders produced the Radford Mini de Ville, which was snapped up by celebrities such as Britt Ekland, all four of the Beatles, Mike Nesmith (of the Monkees), and Marianne Faithful. A standard Mini Cooper cost 850 pounds; a Radford cost 2,500.

Mini de Ville advertisement

A Coachbuilt Mini for the Wealthy

Even today, over a century after the introduction of Ford's assembly line, coachbuilders still exist, but they have become niche companies servicing the wealthy. Car manufacturers with a reliance on coachbuilding are now all but extinct. (The Rolls-Royce company was broken up in 1998, and the brand is now owned by BMW. Rolls-Royce cars are now produced using assembly line techniques, with 20% of the current model Rolls-Royce Ghost being shared components of the BMW 7 Series.)

Now remember, this is supposed to be an allegory. How is this history of car manufacturing symbolic of the business of technical communication? I'll get to that shortly...

Any colour, so long as it's black

The assembly line is a manufacturing process where parts are added to a product in a sequential manner using "division of labour", where one person repeatedly performs only one small portion of the entire process. Practically speaking, this means that one person's job might be to hammer the spokes into the wheels; nothing more, nothing less. The spoke hammerer becomes an expert at spoke hammering, and becomes more and more efficient at that task. If the spokes and the wheels arrive at the spoke hammerer's position at exactly the right time, and this is repeated for all the different tasks in the line, the car can be produced at the lowest unit cost.

One of Henry Ford's famous quotes about the Model T was, "Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants, so long as it is black."

The Model T only came in black because the production line required compromise so that efficiency and improved quality could be achieved. Spraying different colours would have required a break in the production line, meaning increased costs, more staff, more equipment, a more complicated process, and the risk of the wrong colour being applied.

Ford - The Universal Car

The Model T - The Universal Car

Using the car manufacturing metaphor, we can say that technical communication is still largely in the coachbuilding era, where artisans hand-craft unique document products using all-in-one tools such as FrameMaker, Word, RoboHelp, and Flare. Non-standard products with non-interchangeable components are produced, at a cost that only the wealthy customers and employers can afford. Technical communication as a profession risks going the way of coachbuilders... still around, but as an eccentric coterie producing lovely and obsolete products that very few can afford.

Sure, there has been some "transfer of skill to the equipment" (a feature of the "American System" of production), but not systemic changes to the production process.

Let's look at the parallels...


In the coachbuilding era, a single craftsman or team of craftsmen would create each part of a product. They would use their skills (developed over years as an apprentice) and tools to create the individual parts. Those same craftsmen would then assemble the parts into the final product, making "trial and error" changes in the parts until they fitted.

This is the same approach that many technical authors currently use to produce manuals. A single author or team of authors creates each part of a manual. They use their skills and tools such as word processors and page layout software to create the individual chapters, pages and images. They then assemble them into the final manual, making "trial and error" changes to the layout until the text fits.

Let's analyse this allegory a little further. The assembly line was made possible by two major technological developments:
  • toolpath control (where jigs and templates provided a means for repeatable, consistent use of tools)
  • machine tools (such as power drills, lathes and milling machines)

These developments not only improved quality, but enabled "interchangeable parts". In coachbuilding, adjoining parts were made to fit each other. In assembly lines, different parts needed to be made in isolation, yet had to fit together when assembled. In document engineering, the equivalent idea is known as "interchangeability"; blocks of text from one document need to be able to work in different documents, and content produced by different authors and even different companies needs to be able to fit together without rework.

The assembly line built on ideas from the Industrial Revolution and before. The "American System" of production of the early 19th Century used the ideas of:
  • division of labour
  • engineering tolerance
  • interchangeable parts

Another feature of the American system was the "transfer of skill to the equipment", allowing the use of semi-skilled or unskilled machine operators. When contemplating the impact of document engineering on the technical communication profession, this is thought provoking to say the least!

Interchangeability relies on "tolerance", and tolerance is defined through standards. Some people claim that moving away from coachbuilder writing will lead to a loss of quality. Sure, there are compromises that have to be made (any colour as long as it's black), but variety may not be quality. Mass production requires components to be built to higher engineering tolerances than hand-crafting. For parts to be interchanged, they have to be of consistent quality, and a quality that is specified. Document engineering, provided it is working to fine tolerances, produces consistently better quality than hand-crafting.

Better, Faster, Stronger

Some technical communicators have embraced the assembly line approach, which is cheaper, and produces a higher quality product. (What quality actually means is for another time, but quality is not the same as luxury. A walnut dashboard isn't necessarily better quality than a plastic one.)

Remember Ford's aim of producing a car that costed $1000 instead of $4000? A Model T cost $825 in 1908, but was $575 by 1912. The price of the Model T kept dropping as the production line process was improved, and the skills of workers developed. At the end of the production run, the price was $300, and a total of 15 million Model Ts had been produced. Even Ford's own factory workers could afford to buy a Model T. Without undergoing a revolutionary change in approach, are our document products going to get cheaper and cheaper? Not if we stick with coachbuilding!

Like toolpath control and machine tools, XML and DITA are catalysts that can revolutionise technical communication, taking it from coachbuilding to the assembly line and beyond. (We'll find out what followed the assembly line later.) XML and DITA: these two standards allow information "interchange", "outsourcing", "specialisation of labour", "simple re-usable components", and "standardised publication systems", but they also demand skilled technical authors. XML and DITA also make it possible to reduce the cost of documentation to the same degree that assembly-line reduced the cost of cars.

DITA projects sometimes fail because authors try to replicate the coachbuilding approach. They want to keep offering manuals in a colour other than black. Projects also fail because authors are not skilled in the new techniques of structured, componentised, topic-centric authoring. Ford faced the same issue of worker skills.

Ford recognised that the skills of the workers had a direct impact on quality and efficiency, so opened a worker training college, and paid his workers a handsome wage of $5 per day. This wage was seen as extraordinarily high (double the going rate for factory workers), and Ford added money management courses to the training programme to ensure his employees used their wages responsibly! And on top of that, he cut one hour off the working day. Ford's profit doubled in the three years after the introduction of the worker training college.

Each Ford worker was a specialist, and was recognised as such. Likewise, DITA authors are specialists: document engineers that need to be recognised as such.

Many of Ford's workers were immigrants who did not speak English, and could not read or write. The Training College provided some of the necessary skills, but on-the-job lean training was also employed. The assembly line divided labour into small, repeatable tasks.

Ford had built 15 million Model Ts by the time the production line was closed down in 1927. That makes it the second largest production run of any car (behind the VW Beetle, with 21 million). The production line made cars affordable, and enormously expanded the market. Even workers at the Ford factory could afford a Model T.

These days, most cars seem to be German, or Japanese. Unless you live in the US, where most cars are American, aren't they?

In 1898, Henry Ford's company made one Quadricycle. He made another in 1899, and a third one in 1900. These cars were hand-built. At the zenith of Model T production, one car rolled off the assembly line every 60 seconds.

Beyond the Assembly Line - Automation

Henry Ford's assembly line was embraced by all manufacturing industries. This resulted in lower costs of mass-produced manufactured goods, and led, rightly or wrongly, to the " consumer culture". But progress didn't stop at the assembly line, and neither does this allegory.

The assembly line method of car manufacture remained the norm until the 1980s, when many of the production line jobs previously performed by humans were automated. "Robots", as they were initially described, took over a lot of precision, dangerous or repetitive processes. Not only did automation lead to more consistent components, but worker injuries, including repetitive strain injuries, were reduced. Today, 50 per cent of all robots are used in car manufacture. Japanese car manufacturers were the first to take advantage of robots, and the perception of quality of Japanese cars was reversed. In the 1970s, Japanese cars ( "Jap Crap") were considered of inferior quality to American or European cars. By the turn of the century, Japanese manufacturer was synonymous with consistently good quality. While robots replaced humans on the production line, they also created higher paid, higher skilled and intellectually stimulating jobs in computer-aided design and manufacture.


Automation in car manufacture

One of the huge benefits of DITA (and other types of XML) is the opportunity for document automation. In many cases, DITA topics can be automatically generated. For example, Visma Software developed a little software utility that generates 13,000 reference topics documenting database structures automatically, in less than an hour. As in the Japanese car industry, automation of tedious, repetitive documentation tasks remove drudgery and leave authors to tackle the more intellectually stimulating tasks.

Read more: Robots in Car Manufacturing | eHow.com http://www.ehow.com/about_4678910_robots-car-manufacturing.html#ixzz1Y020mjyt

Toyota was the most successful of the Japanese manufacturers. Not only was automation embraced, but every effort was made to make every stage of the production process more efficient. By the 1990s, the American manufacturers began re-working their own production processes to follow the lead of Toyota, but with little success. While American companies adopted the Japanese systems, they didn't necessarily adopt the philosophy. The Toyota method is known as "TPS (Toyota Production System)". TPS is an integrated socio-technical system of management philosophies and practices. It is built around continuous improvement, and respect for people. TPS has been adopted widely outside Toyota as "lean manufacturing" and "just-in-time (JIT) production".

Automation really means "the automation of drudgery".

Where now for technical communication?

The catalysts for change are here. As technical communicators, we have to make decisions on what path we take. We can choose to fight on as coachbuilders, finding a romantic niche as crafters of expensive, high-end, bespoke, non-standard documentation products. We can choose to move to the efficient production line, embracing the division of labour, working to standards (engineering tolerance), writing for interchangeability, and transferring as many tasks as possible to automation.

The primary catalyst for change is XML-based structured authoring approaches, and in particular DITA. As for "TPS", transition to DITA is most successfully when it is used as an integrated socio-technical system of writing philosophies and practices. As the famous sage Anonymous once said, "if you don't create change, change will create you".

Ford produced a high quality product with low cost by standardisation, compromise, interchange, good architecture, and an educated, well-paid workforce. It is a myth to think that standardisation results in lower quality. By many measures, the Model T was the best car Ford ever produced, and was in production for 20 years.

The semi-automated assembly line approach is the one that should be taken with DITA and XML. If we try to incorporate all the features of the coachbuilding way of producing documents, we will lose many of the efficiency and quality control benefits of the new DITA and XML methodology. As well as vision, investment of time and equipment is required to move from coachbuilding to assembly line to automation of drudgery, but that investment is worthwhile.


Model Ts were originally offered in a blue, red, green and grey. From 1913, black was the only option. More than 30 different types of black paint were used on different components, and black was the cheapest, most durable, and easiest to colour-match.

Ford almost went broke when they tried to produce multiple products with multiple options in the 1930s. Only retained profits from the Model T saved the company. http://www.icms.net/lean_at_ford.htm

It is estimated that as many as 150,000 Model Ts still exist, with perhaps 20,000 still on the road. http://www.mtfca.com/discus/messages/118802/147456.html?1277497256

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This article first appeared in the ISTC's Communicator journal, Spring 2012.


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