Humans replacing robots: How Toyota's future looks a lot like its past

WU staff | Features | April 7, 2014
Humans replacing robots: How Toyota's future looks a lot like its past

Ford may have given the world the mass produced car, but Toyota was the first to infuse quality into the mix. Since then Japanese auto giant has grown to become the world's largest manufacturer of passenger vehicles, but in return lost some of the things it stood for.

Toyota has been synonymous with quality issues in recent times, and while only a small percentage of cars the company produces have flaws, the number is still massive. The company is now planning to fix that and herald a new era of 21st century manufacturing by replacing robots with human workers.

Mitsuru Kawai’s vision for Toyota's future looks a lot like its past, where workers hammer out key components, taking over from the robots which had once replaced them. “We need to become more solid and get back to basics, to sharpen our manual skills and further develop them” says Kawai, a 50 year veteran with Toyota.

While Toyota's move may seem counter-intutive in this day and age of manufacturing, there is sense in it. Machines of today still cannot learn how to improve their skills all on their own. The humans who program these machines too have over the years lost the ability to figure out new ways of making them more efficient.

It is for this reason that humans are taking the place of machines at various manufacturing plants across Japan. Workers can continue to perfect their art and skill, finding better ways of manufacturing quality products, and at the same time improving efficiency. This learning can then be transferred to the robots, but it is impossible for them to figure out these things on their own.

Toyota's recent fallout with the quality of their vehicles signifies the company's shift away from its core strengths of quality and efficiency to powering growth. Akio Toyoda, the President of Toyota Motor Corp, is now planning to change this for which he has turned to Kawai, a veteran with over 50 years of experience in the company.

At a time when it is common belief that machines do better work than man and are cheaper to employee, Toyota has proven otherwise. At the company's Honshu plant, workers have replaced machines at the forging unit, and this has led to innovations in reducing levels of scrap and shortened the production line by 96 per cent of its length from three years ago.

Toyota has eliminated 10 per cent of the material related waste that is produced during building of cranskhafts. Moreover, the company wants to apply these efficient techniques of manufacturing to its next-generation Prius. (Building an efficient car isn't just about how much fuel it utilises to run, but also about how much energy is consumed to manufacturer it.)

While Toyota has no plans of ridding its factories of all its robots, it is working to introduce multiple lines dedicated to manual labour at all of its plants in Japan. “We cannot simply depend on the machines that only repeat the same task over and over again”, says Kawai. “To be the master of the machine, you have to have the knowledge and the skills to teach the machine.”

The above piece is an extract from a Bloomberg report that appeared in the Livemint. You can read the rest of the article here.

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