“Mass production”, “flow production” or “continuous production” is the production of large amounts of standardized products, including and especially on assembly lines.
Together with job production and batch production, it is one of the three main production methods. The term mass production was popularized by a 1926 article in the Encyclopedia Britannica supplement that was written based on correspondence with Ford Motor Company. The New York Times used the term in the title of an article that appeared before publication of the Britannica article.
The concepts of mass production are applied to various kinds of products, from fluids and particulates handled in bulk (such as food, fuel, chemicals, and mined minerals) to discrete solid parts (such as fasteners) to assemblies of such parts (such as household appliances and automobiles).
Mass production is a diverse field, but it can generally be contrasted with craft production or distributed manufacturing. Some mass production techniques, such as standardized sizes and production lines, predate the Industrial Revolution by many centuries; however, it was not until the introduction of machine tools and techniques to produce interchangeable parts were developed in the mid 19th century that modern mass production was possible.
One of the descriptions of mass production is that “the skill is built into the tool”, which means that the worker using the tool may not need the skill. For example, in the 19th or early 20th century, this could be expressed as “the craftsmanship is in the workbench itself” (not the training of the worker). Rather than having a skilled worker measure every dimension of each part of the product against the plans or the other parts as it is being formed, there were jigs ready at hand to ensure that the part was made to fit this set-up. It had already been checked that the finished part would be to specifications to fit all the other finished parts—and it would be made more quickly, with no time spent on finishing the parts to fit one another. Later, once computerized control came about (for example, CNC), jigs were obviated, but it remained true that the skill (or knowledge) was built into the tool (or process, or documentation) rather than residing in the worker’s head. This is the specialized capital required for mass production; each workbench and set of tools (or each CNC cell, or each fractionating column) is different (fine-tuned to its task).