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.
“When I was a novice,
experienced masters used to be called gods, and they could make
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
return of the Kami-sama is emblematic of how Toyoda, 57, is remaking
the company founded by his grandfather as the CEO 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.
importance of following through on that push has been underscored by the
millions of cars General Motors Co. has recalled for faulty ignition
switches linked to 13 deaths.
The effort comes as
Toyota overhauls vehicle development, where the world’s largest carmaker
will shift to manufacturing platforms that could cut costs by 30 percent. It also underscores Toyota’s commitment to maintain annual production of 3 million vehicles in Japan.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”