22 April 2015

There May Still Be Some Utility Left in the Mk. 1 Human

Toyota has discovered that robots cannot do it all, and that they need highly experienced experts to maximize the productivity at their plants:
Inside Toyota Motor Corp.’s oldest plant, there’s a corner where humans have taken over from robots in thwacking glowing lumps of metal into crankshafts. This is Mitsuru Kawai’s vision of the future.

“We need to become more solid and get back to basics, to sharpen our manual skills and further develop them,” said Kawai, a half century-long company veteran tapped by President Akio Toyoda to promote craftsmanship at Toyota’s plants. “When I was a novice, experienced masters used to be called gods, and they could make anything.”

These gods, or “kami-sama” in Japanese, are making a comeback at Toyota, the company that long set the pace for manufacturing prowess in the auto industry and beyond. Toyota’s next step forward is counterintuitive in an age of automation: Humans are taking the place of machines in plants across the nation so workers can develop new skills and figure out ways to improve production lines and the car-building process.

“Toyota views their people who work in a plant like this as craftsmen who need to continue to refine their art and skill level,” said Jeff Liker, who has written eight books on Toyota and visited Kawai last year. “In almost every company you would visit, the workers’ jobs are to feed parts into a machine and call somebody for help when it breaks down.”

The return of the kami-sama is emblematic of how Toyoda, 57, is remaking the company founded by his grandfather as the chief executive officer has pledged to tilt priorities back toward quality and efficiency from a growth mentality. He’s reining in expansion at the world’s-largest automaker with a three-year freeze on new car plants.


“What Akio Toyoda feared the company lost when it was growing so fast was the time to struggle and learn,” said Liker, who met with Toyoda in November. “He felt Toyota got big-company disease and was too busy getting product out.”


Learning how to make car parts from scratch gives younger workers insights they otherwise wouldn’t get from picking parts from bins and conveyor belts, or pressing buttons on machines. At about 100 manual-intensive workspaces introduced over the last three years across Toyota’s factories in Japan, these lessons can then be applied to reprogram machines to cut down on waste and improve processes, Kawai said.

In an area Kawai directly supervises at the forging division of Toyota’s Honsha plant, workers twist, turn and hammer metal into crankshafts instead of using the typically automated process. Experiences there have led to innovations in reducing levels of scrap and shortening the production line 96 percent from its length three years ago.

Toyota has eliminated about 10 percent of material-related waste from building crankshafts at Honsha. Kawai said the aim is to apply those savings to the next-generation Prius hybrid.

The work extends beyond crankshafts. Kawai credits manual labor for helping workers at Honsha improve production of axle beams and cut the costs of making chassis parts.

Though Kawai doesn’t envision the day his employer will rid itself of robots — 760 of them take part in 96 percent of the production process at its Motomachi plant in Japan — he has introduced multiple lines dedicated to manual labor in each of Toyota’s factories in its home country, he said.

“We cannot simply depend on the machines that only repeat the same task over and over again,” Kawai said. “To be the master of the machine, you have to have the knowledge and the skills to teach the machine.”
True dat.

Guys on the shop floor are an invaluable source of knowledge and wisdom.


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