Takt time – More about origins in German aircraft manufacturing

What exactly did the engineers from Junkers tell their hosts at Mitsubishi in Nagoya in 1942 that influenced them so deeply? This is not a subject on which Google overwhelms you with information. I have found so far two German sources that provide at least a context with dates and names: Holger Lorenz, a journalist, and Lutz Budrass, an academic historian, author of a 1,000-page dissertation on the German aircraft industry from 1918 to 1945, now out of print. Lorenz and Budrass both write in German. In English there is a book by Daniel Uziel called Arming the Luftwaffe, but the only reference to Takt in it is in the recollections of a former Junkers worker, who says that his working conditions degraded markedly in 1943 when the Takt system was abandoned in his area, in favor of a moving conveyor.

The featured picture should look eerily familiar to anyone who used small trains for milk runs inside a plant. Lorenz describes it as showing Jumo-211 engines returning from test runs to disassembly. What is odd about the scene is that the train is running outside, with the engines unprotected from the weather. Perhaps the picture was just staged outside on a sunny day.

The ABC program, conceived by Klaus Junkers in 1932-33, called for the transformation of military aircraft manufacturing to mass production, based on Ford methods but with the caveat that the plants should be “fit for air defense.” From the get-go, the factories were designed in the expectation of enemy air raids. For this reason, rather than the kind of concentration you had at the Ford River Rouge plant, it involved multiple assembly halls, 200 to 300 meters apart with trees and green spaces to handicap airstrikes, and a network of suppliers in a circle about 35km away from Dessau, in Köthen, Halberstadt, Staßfurt, Bernburg. Lorenz describes these plants as supplying components “just in time,” but I suspect he is just retrofitting a modern term. “ABC” here refers to multiple locations A, B, C, etc.

Dessau is in the former East Germany, two thirds of the way from Berlin to Leipzig, and a museum is all that is left of the factory. From this location, however, if you operated a milk run through the locations described by Lorenz, using today’s roads, according to Google, it would be 164 km, and take 2 hours and 56 minutes to complete. The route would look as follows:

Of course, we don’t know whether they used milk runs, but their motivation to keep inventories low at the assembly plant was stronger than in more peaceful endeavors: they wanted to reduce the risk of the inventory being destroyed by bombs.

The Junkers plant in Dessau  became the largest  in the entire German aircraft industry, with 40,000 employees at its peak. Lorenz provides the following 1940 layout of the Dessau plant, which I annotated based on his explanations:

Air protection bunkers are under the green areas. The assembly halls are connected by a narrow-gauge railway on the outside.

The leader in building this plant was Heinrich Koppenberg, a metal worker who had risen to top management at the Flick steel company and was in charge of the Dessau facility from its inception in 1934 until 1941. In the following photo, Koppenberg is on the left, showing the plant to Nazi leader Hermann Göring in August, 1939:

According to Budrass, conditions at the plant degraded after Koppenberg’s departure, particularly with the use of forced labor. Production increased, but productivity and quality went down.

But I still don’t know what their Taktsystem was. There is a copy of Budrass’s book at the Stanford Library near here, and I will look at it when I get a chance, and will keep you posted on what I find.

7 comments on “Takt time – More about origins in German aircraft manufacturing

  1. Hi Michel,
    First, I really enjoy reading your blog. It is always refreshing to hear your thoughts / point of view as you go way beyond the standard “lean/TPS” stuff that everyone talks about online. Second, I grew up in Germany and speak German. Although I can not answer your question about the exact “origins” of “taktzeit”, what I can tell you, is that it is actually 2 words (the German language does this a lot where two words are combined to make a single word). For example, in English we use “schadenfreude” which is “shaden” (harm) and “freude” (joy). Another example would be “Luftwaffe” which means “luft” (air) and “waffe” (weapon). The German language has 1,000 of these (Kindergarten, Lokomotivführer, Baumgarten, Bierhalle, Fussball, Autobahn,…)

    With regards to “taktzeit”, the two words are “takt” (stroke) and “zeit” (time)
    Time: Used as in “Do you have the time” = “Haben Sie die Zeit”.
    Takt: This word is not used as often and is a quasi-technical term. It refers to the grouping of musical notes within the same beat. You can read about this at a german wikipedia page: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Takt_(Musik). You can translate this page but copy/pasting into Google translate. Our friends at google actually do a pretty good job with translation (I also speak French and Hungarian if you can believe it so I use their translation services often). Just do a search for “Google Translate”

    Also, if you go to http://www.google.de (.de being “Deutschland”) and type in “Takt”, you will see the many entries that you get are related to music. The german wikipedia writes that the word takt comes from the latin word: tactus, which Google translates to English as “touch”.

    So, all this to say that “taktzeit” is actually 2 words. I hope this information is of use to you (perhaps you knew all of it already). I am going to see if either the Seattle public library or University of Washington has a copy of the now out-of-copy “Flugzeugindustrie und Luftrustung in Deutschland 1918-1945” (amazon did not have any). If they do, I will check it out and see what is referenced with regards to a takt, a production beat/rhythm. This because this is something that I am interested in as well.

    Thank you once again for the interesting blog posts. I hope that this short note help.
    Take care,

  2. Thanks. I have poked around Google in English and German, as well as amazon.com, amazon.de, and even bibliofind.com for used books. If you search for the book in Google, it directs you to a library search, which should enable you to see whether the University of Washington has a copy. Stanford’s main library does, and I plan to check it out there when I get around to it.
    If, however, you can do it sooner, I would be interested in what you find out.

  3. Michel,
    no need to turn to the library: “Takt”-Production was – and is – understood in Germany as being a less developed form of flow production. Although it was a kind of dream of all aircraft engineers to produce an aircraft similar to a model T, it turned out until late in WWII that a continuously moving belt system was not feasible. The number of operations necessary to produce even a tiny aircraft exeeded the number of operations in car production by far. For this reason “Takte” were defined: the whole span of the production was so split into time segments of equal lengh. During a specific time segment a group of workers carried out a number of operations at one aircraft. After finishing, either they moved to the next aircraft to carry out the same operations, or the aircraft moved. Both follow ups however, necessitated, that all other groups or all other aircraft in the plant moved as well. The takt-System had the one major advantage that it was far more adaptable to changes in armament programs: The larger the production badges the shorter the time segments were defined, up to the point where a takt just embraced one operation of a single worker, and this was identical to flow production in a Fordist sense. In the begining, however, a Takt at Heinkel lasted a working day, and it took some time until the segments became smaller.
    Thnks, btw for the praise for my book.

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  5. Pingback: Immer synchron im Takt

  6. There are a number of photos available of Tiger Tank Production in which the workstations are clearly marked TAKT 1, 2. and so on. Showing the influence was not jsut limited to aircraft but other wartime industries.

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