A National Historic Engineering Landmark

In 1915 the demands for automobile frames grew to many thousands, more than the A.O. Smith Company could meet with their present equipment. In 1916, Lloyd R. Smith, son of founder Arthur O. Smith and then president of the company, called his engineers together and told them he wanted "An automatic plant that would run without men." No one had ever heard of anything so fantastic but this attitude was in the Smith tradition so his associates assembled to put his vision into reality. Engineers reached for their pencils and micrometers and bent over their boards. Hundreds of sketches went into waste baskets. Blueprints followed. Model after model went onto the scrap pile.


Frame Assembly Line

In May, 1915, World War I interupted their work when a German submarine sank Lusitania. To support the war effort, A. O. Smith turned its resources to supplying war materials to the expiditionary forces, producing hub flanges for caisson wheels, frames for army trucks and cavalry saddles, and casings for bombs. Problems in early production of bomb casings prompted research that resulted in a greatly improved method of electric arc welding, in which the weld metal had the same ductility or “stretch” as the base metal. Within two years, A. O. Smith had become the largest manufacturer of casings for aerial bombs and shells. This was noteworthy, or course, but it was the company's experiments in arc welding that became one of its greatest contributions to industry.

In November, 1918, the war was over and attention was again turned to the automatic frame plant. Hundreds of engineers were put of the project. After working many nights and weekends, a concept emerged in which 552 separate mechanical operations could be performed, all automatically, all within the rigid framework of a ten second cycle.

Construction work began in late 1919 and went steadily forward until, on a day in May of 1921, the plant was ready after six years of labor and $8,000,000 had been spent. At the agreed hour that morning there was silence. Almost as far as one could see in any direction there were great banks of machines that made up the huge automatic factory. Mr. Smith recalls: "I will never forget that moment when it became necessary for me or an associate to throw on the power. Both of us were stalling, one waiting for the other. Neither can remember clearly which one threw the switch. But for an hour and fifty-seven minutes, the unit functioned without a hitch. Then it was shut down for want of raw material."

Fortune magazine called the plant "the most advanced single exthibit of automatic function in the world." Its successful operation, perhaps more than any other accomplishment in A. O. Smith history, solidly established the company as a world leader in frame development. The automatic frame plant operated successfully for 37 years, producing frames for all major automakers. At its maximum capacity of 10,000 frames par day, over 2,000,000 operations were performeddaily.