Charlie Sorensen and Willow Run

Charlie Sorensen had worked for Ford Motor Company for 35 years. He’d been there when they were making Model N Fords in a piecemeal way. He had been part of the engineering effort to streamline operations that lead to mass production. In January of 1940 he was Vice-President of Production for Ford. That was when he was sent to the Consolidated Aircraft plant in California to see how B-24 Liberators were being built. Consolidated was making a bomber a day.

He left the facility discouraged that the production seemed so slow, with a great deal of hand fitting of major components. He said so, and was challenged, “Well, what would you do?” Charlie worked on it overnight. The next day he returned and this was his answer.

In one night he had broken down the production steps into sub-assembly jobs, arranged those jobs so that the components flowed into a production process, decided how large the building would be, and concluded that it would be possible to build a bomber an hour. When he presented his plan to the leadership at Ford, they agreed, and built Willow Run. A $200,000,000 facility that was decided on because of Charlie Sorensen’s pencil sketches.

At the time it was built, it was the largest single room in the world. They made 18 bombers a day in 2 nine hour shifts. A bomber an hour. It dwarfed the other B-24 production efforts, Willow Run made half of all the B-24s built for WWII. It was part of the effort that allowed America to achieve victory, manufacturing military aircraft on a such a scale was beyond the capability of other countries.

One man, in the right place, with the right training, made the difference.

To compare a Ford V-8 with a four-engine Liberator bomber was like matching a garage with a skyscraper, but despite their great differences I knew the same fundamentals applied to high-volume production of both, the same as they would to an electric egg beater or to a wrist watch… I was going on the principle I had enunciated many times at Ford: “The only thing we can’t make is something we can’t think about.”
–Charlie Sorensen


2 thoughts on “Charlie Sorensen and Willow Run

  1. Thank God he was in the 'wrong' place at the 'right' time… Who knows how many lives were saved by upping the production schedule at Willow Run.

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