Toyota Manufacturing Reverses Course – More Humans, Less Robots

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The big news from Toyota manufacturing lately is a pretty radical change in philosophy. Instead of adding more robots and pumping up production, Toyota says it wants to reduce the number of robots it uses and add more humans.

Why would they do this? They want to improve their product quality – profits be damned.

Toyota Manufacturing Reverses Course - More Humans, Less Robots

Toyota is rethinking its production and may use less robots.

In an extensive Bloomberg story (reprinted on Autonews), Toyota’s plan to use more humans is detailed. In a nutshell, Toyota wants to develop more experienced production masters or “gods (Kami-sama).” These experienced craftsmen are able to think beyond the repetitive robot. With humans playing a larger role in manufacturing, Toyota says they can improve their methods, reduce manufacturing waste and become more innovative. In fact, this manufacturing model is akin to the Toyota of old.

Growth Changes Production

Toyota increased its production by more than a half million vehicle by using more robots back around the turn of century. This allowed this to grow into one of the largest manufactures in the world.

However, with more production, came setbacks. Toyota production is built around a philosophy called Kaizen, or continuous improvement. The Kaizen principle also gives a larger role to workers who can address issues throughout the production process and make changes immediately. Something robots can’t do.

“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.”

Akido’s Influence

Talk with any Toyota company employee and undoubtedly Akido Toyoda’s name will be mentioned. He is the current Toyota president and grandson of Toyota’s founder. For the past several years, Akido has been growing his influence throughout the company. Besides his influence on Toyota racing (see: the FT-1), he is also working to remake Toyota’s quality image.

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

By leading a charge to reduce Toyota’s dependence on robots and instead focus more on humans, Toyota will undoubtedly see a reduction on production. In fact, Akido has reportedly put a three-year freeze on new car plants.

This freeze comes after Toyota paid a record $1.2 billion penalty to end a probe on unintended acceleration claims. The thought is that Toyota grew too large, too fast and by freezing new expansion plans, they can re-focus on quality.

“If there is ever a technology that’s flawless and could always make perfect products, then we will be ready and willing to install that machine,” Kawai said. “There’s no machine that is eternally stable.”

What do you think? Do you like to see Toyota reign in production to increase quality?

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Filed Under: Auto News


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  1. LJC says:

    OMG! On the one-hand thera are many futurists who claim the end is near for human labor. Now, with Toyoda’s deep insight into production, he says AND backs up the opposite. I undoubtedly believe Toyoda is right.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see this change on 60 minutes.
    This is huge.

    I wonder if it was a robot that assembled the Cam Towers for my Tundra’s engine…

  2. Randy says:

    I do not agree with the premise that this is an either or question. You can easily have increased production with vastly improved quality. Now it is true that “humans” are required to get that accomplished. That holds true for the assembly line and even more so for engineering, design and testing. Humans are required for functional design and testing……something the new Tundra could use a lot more of.

    No question the new Tundra is the QDR leader for half ton trucks, and yet at the same time it is completely shocking the number of things missed by engineers, designers, real world testing, and final assembly.

    When “one” major component of an assembled product does not meet minimum requirements and it came off the assembly line for delivery to the customer, then that is a problem. It becomes a bigger problem when it cannot be resolved for the customer. Dealers are unable to resolve “quality” problems that are “designed” into a product. In that case it is up to the manufacturer of the product to correct the quality issue for the customer. And sooner is always better than later. This is the “one” area that Tundra needs the most improvement. When it don’t work fix it.

  3. Larry says:

    This is just PR.

    Automation machines don’t take time off, they don’t require health care. Once setup the perform the same task without variation. Robots don’t have pension plans or get matching 401k funds. Manufacturing needs smarter people who can drive the new high tech systems not more people with lug wrenches.

    There is not an auto manufacturer that wouldn’t eliminate every single person they can.

    If this is real news from Toyota, they should get back to work building better cars and trucks and stop wasting peoples time with this junk.

    If we building less then 100 of something it takes craftsmen to do it. If we are building 1,000,000 of something we need automation.

    Better for robots to spray paint then people. Robots don’t get lung cancer

    • Mickey says:

      Junk Larry? That can be said for all major manufacturers. Can a robot see a paint flaw?

      • Larry says:

        I agree that in some phases of production, people are the only answer. When it comes to painting, the high end paint jobs area already being done by robots with some new high tech water based paints. It’s a much better idea for people to not be spraying paint for 20 years even with external filtered air.

        And, you are right in that it will be people doing the inspections who find the flaws. A fine 200,000 dollar car has a lot of highly skilled people doing some great work but I’m not going to see any of that on my truck.

        My point is that no manufactured will go back to human production with the exception of those tasks which can only at this time be done by people. As each day passes modern techniques will be found to automate more and more. 5 years from now the percentage of what is done by automation will be higher then it is today at Toyota and everywhere else so I am not buying into this story. This is just a story of how Toyota is employing more people, a dig at the UAW and the big 3.

        I’v done production line work back when I was in college. I counted ever second and it seems the shift would never end. Time would stand still. Those might be jobs but I wouldn’t want to spend 40 years doing them. Think about running the 8 lug all at once pneumatic device witch torques down lugs when the wheels are mounted. A person would go crazy doing that all day.

  4. art64 says:

    The Toyota Way

  5. LJC says:

    If we take a step back and ask the greater question of “What negatively affects quality?”, three answers come to mind.
    1) Poor assembly, for example “Cam Tower Oil Leak”
    2) Design defect, AIP problem?
    3) Supplier part not up to Toyota’s standards

    With this change Toyota is making, they can address 1 and 2, but not 3. The only way to address 3 would be for them to manufacture the part themselves–if the part is not under their roof it is not under their control.
    So, I’d like to see how Toyota is going to address 3.

    • Jimbo says:

      Easily. They send a quality engineer or specialist to suppliers site. Ask for the changes to be made. Send a batch of changed parts.. Build those parts in house to make a durability test. If results are satisfactory.. They use parts in future builds.. Now for continued quality. Employees will do spot quality checks every time the part is used.

  6. Will says:

    Think Toyota is not “replacing robots with people” except in the most literal and short sighted sense.

  7. Mike T says:

    So the humans are not replacing robots at all. They are doing an entirely different task that cannot be automated yet, and in doing so displace some robots for a short time.

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