When we think of assembly lines, many of us envision men and women in identical uniforms standing side by side before a conveyor belt, tools in hand, against a dense backdrop of plastic and metal, performing the same basic tasks ad infinitum. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Chaplin’s Modern Times—these films are timeless in their representation of the popular conception of the assembly line as industrialism’s great homogenizer, soul-crusher, inducer of unspeakable boredom. What we don’t think of in relation to assembly lines is imagination. Why would we? What room is there for imaginative thinking in the Dickensian toil of the line worker?
New Yorker staff writer Peter J. Boyer’s reportage challenges these assumptions. In his April 27, 2009, article, “The Road Ahead,” he discusses the opening of a Nissan automobile plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, in the early 1980s. It was a bold step—the largest Japanese investment in the United States to date, to be run according to the Japanese method of manufacturing and workmanship. So how did this anomalous experiment become the most productive auto plant in the U.S. by the end of the decade? (more…)