Toyota, which just yesterday announced a recall of more than six million cars for a variety of defects, is having second thoughts about its robot culture. A longtime pacesetter in factory automation, the company is putting a new stress on nurturing human expertise and craftsmanship, reports Bloomberg:
“We need to become more solid and get back to basics, to sharpen our manual skills and further develop them,” said [Mitsuru] 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 counter-intuitive in an age of automation: Humans are taking the place of machines in plants across Japan so workers can develop new skills and figure out ways to improve production lines and the car-building process.
The trend in manufacturing is to turn workers into robot tenders who feed parts into automated machines and watch for breakdowns. The shift of core manufacturing tasks from people to robots may boost productivity in the short run. But the cost is a decay in human know-how and a loss of the unexpected insights that come with that know-how. Robots, for all their speed and precision, lack perspective and understanding. They can monitor and optimize measurable aspects of production processes, but they can’t view those processes from different angles, and they have no feel for the goods being produced. So-called “smart factories” are actually pretty stupid.
Recognizing the dangers in allowing craftsmanship to decay, Toyota is giving pink slips to some of its robots, returning their jobs to people in order to promote the development of deep know-how:
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.
Much of the current thinking about the future of automation adopts the viewpoint of the robot. It overstates the importance of the things computers are good at (things that tend to be easily measured) and understates the importance of the things that people are good at (things that often are not easily measured). The flaw in that view manifests itself only over the long run, after masters have begun to lose their mastery and companies have begun to lose the intangible benefits mastery brings. Just because a robot can take over a job doesn’t mean it should.