From Workbenches to Production Lines- Aviation during ww2

During World War II the production process of aircraft gradually changed. This change should be viewed in a broader context of general changes influencing aircraft production methods. As the growing aviation industry received an increasing number of contracts following Hitler’s rise to power, it looked for ways to expand its production capacity. Like the rest of the German armaments industry, the consequent increase of output was achieved not through the introduction of modern production technology, but through “internal streamlining,” based on standardization, simplification of the products, bigger production facilities and longer working hours. The production process and production technology remained basically unchanged. The streamlining processes culminated in the attempt of state-owned Junkers to mass-produce the Ju 88 fast bomber on older-fashioned but massively expanded production lines.69 As historian Richard Overy pointed out, German prewar aircraft production was based largely on handwork preformed by a relatively small guild of expert artisans on static workbenches. The workers were trained technicians, well aware of their high status as expert craftsmen in an advanced branch of the industry. A professional production technician was trained for 4 years as an apprentice before gaining his status. Although aviation technology made swift progress in the prewar years, production methods remained largely static. Unlike the automobile industry of the 1930s, there was little mechanization of the production pro- cess in the aviation industry, and conveyor-belt-based production lines were nonexistent.70 This pattern of work restricted the expansion potential of the aviation industry. Since the production process was divided into a relatively small number of segments with several manufacturing tasks being preformed in each of them, the workers were required to possess
1. The Aviation Industry at War
detailed knowledge of their trade and high technical skills. Due to the long training period for technicians, it was difficult to provide the expanding industry with enough skilled manpower. Reluctance of the trained craftsmen to share their knowledge with trainee workers only aggravated the problems associated with prewar expansion. Workbench-based industry therefore meant a dead end when it came to expansion and mass production, as required under the circumstances of a total war. Manufacturing a World War II aircraft was complicated. As renewed and expe rienced industrialists, like Henry Ford, failed to grasp, it was more complicated than car pro duc tion and much different.71 The normal workflow of a basic aircraft production was as follows:

Subcontractors supplied subsystems, like engine, undercarriage, instruments and armament, that were added to the components or to the finished airframes. The plane was test flown, and upon the successful completion of the test flight the aircraft was delivered to the customer. As part of Udet’s rationalization program of 1941 and as part of worldwide trends in aviation production, the German aircraft industry started converting the old workbench system into modern conveyor-belt production lines (termed Fliessband or Fliessstrasse). This conversion of existing production facilities into mechanized production lines was a lengthy process. As late as February 1943, Milch still emphasized the need to establish conveyorbelt production lines in the aviation industry in order to match the high output of Soviet aviation production. Conversion meant in most cases long production stoppages and delays, so factory managements tended to repeatedly postpone them. As a result, factories continued to produce aircraft using the old method well into the war. Even factories involved in several central production programs, like the production of the Me 109 and FW 190 fighters, converted to conveyor-belt production lines only during the second half of 1943.The Allies were quicker in adapting modern mass-production techniques and implementing them in aviation production. Both Great Britain and the USA benefited from mobilizing large parts of their automobile industry for aircraft production—something that the Germans largely failed to do. Although several German car manufacturers, like Opel, produced aero-engines under license, the only car manufacturer to become seriously involved in aircraft production was Volkswagen. The western Allies surpassed the Germans not only in terms of participation of the car industry in aviation production, but also, and maybe more importantly, in terms of organizational influence. In Great Britain William Morris, Lord Nuffield, owner and director of Morris Motors Ltd., and pioneer of inexpensive massproduced cars in Britain, played a central role in the prewar “Shadow Factories” scheme. This scheme, started in autumn 1936, sought to massively expand British aircraft production within several years in order to face the emerging fascist threat. In May 1938, with the gathering war clouds on the horizon, the Air Ministry asked Morris to apply his car-manufacturing expertise to aircraft production. He established the first of six large “shadow factories” at Castle Bromwich, near Birmingham, taking advantage of the presence of several car manufacturers in this area and therefore of the availability of a relatively large skilled workforce. The factory used production lines similar to those used by the car industry. By 1940 Morris’s factories became the main producers of British fighters and their engines.