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From SCDigest's On-Target E-Magazine

- April 8, 2014 -

Supply Chain News: In Surprising News, Toyota is Replacing Some Robots with Humans


Concern about Losing Craftsmanship Causes Change of Direction; Can Robotics be an Inhibitor of Continuous Improvement?


SCDigest Editorial Staff


Many know the saga of GM and then CEO Roger Smith's disastrous foray into robotics in the 1980s, when plans to substantially automate auto production ran into a painful wall of inflexibility and high maintenance.


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A basic problem with factory automation is that it can lead to the halt of progress, where continuous improvement proves difficult to achieve as the robots simply do their work each day.

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Robots, of course, have come a long way since then. Modern auto factories, such as the Tesla electric car plant in Fremont, CA, among others, make extensive use of robots and are changing the face of auto production.

Toyota, it seems, is partly going in the other direction.

According to Bloomberg, the world's largest car maker believes it has been losing "craftsmanship" in its processes and workers. To get some of that back, humans are now back replacing the machines in some areas.

"We need to become more solid and get back to basics, to sharpen our manual skills and further develop them," says Mitsuru Kawai, who has been at Toyota for 50 years and is now in charge of promoting craftsmanship at Toyota's plants. "When I was a novice, experienced masters used to be called gods, and they could make anything."

Toward that end, people are taking the place of machines in plants across Japan, so that workers can develop new skills and figure out ways to improve production lines and the car-building process.

Kawai believes, for example, that learning how to make car parts from scratch gives younger workers insights they otherwise wouldn't get from just picking parts from bins and conveyor belts, or pressing buttons on robotic machines.

At some 100 manual-intensive workspaces introduced over the last three years across Toyota's factories in Japan, Kawai says the hands-on lessons learned can then be applied to understand and reprogram machines to cut down on waste and improve processes.

This new Toyota approach seems very different for rival Honda's vision for its "factory of the future," which is heavily dependent on robotics. (See Honda Must Focus on Manufacturing Excellence, not Just Product Excellence, Its President Says.)

Robotics are still a key element of Toyota's current and future processes too, of course, but the company wants to ensure human knowledge is not lost in the race to a more automated future, knowledge the company believes can drive even more savings from using robotics.

For example, at Toyota's famous Hoshna plant near Tokyo, Bloomberg say "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. Toyota has eliminated about 10% of material-related waste from building crankshafts."

Such an approach is not reserved just for crankshafts. Toyota's Kawai credits manual labor for helping workers at Honsha improve production of axle beams and various chassis parts as well.

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While at Toyota's heavily automated Motomachi plant nearby some 760 robots are used one way or another in 96% of the factory's production processes, Kawai has also introduced multiple more manual lines in each of Toyota's factories in Japan.

"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."

A basic problem with factory automation is that it can lead to the halt of progress, where continuous improvement proves difficult to achieve as the robots simply do their work each day.

Part of what Toyota is now trying to do is to recreate the learning environment fostered by Taiichi Ohno, the legendary father of the Toyota Production System, the basis for Lean. In 1970, Ohno created Toyota's Operations Management Consulting Division, an organization that was focused on developing skills and knowledge.

Under that regime, newcomers would be given three months to complete some sort of factory improvement project. The direct supervisors of those newbies might be able to solve the problem in some three weeks. The next management level up might need only three days to come up with the solution.

But somehow, under conditions of rapid growth in vehicles produced annually, that mindset and approach was lost, believes Toyota president Akio Toyoda, grandson of the company's founder. Now, he is trying to bring much of it back.

"Fully automated machines don't evolve on their own," Takahiro Fujimoto, a professor at the University of Tokyo's Manufacturing Management Research Center, told Bloomberg.

Kawai, now 65 years old, started at a Toyota factory when he was just 15.

Does Toyota's refocus on manual learning make sense? Can robotics set a ceiling that constrains continuous improvement?Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.

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