In one corner we have the Germans with their love of Technik. At the big show in Hanover robots and advanced automation were center stage – “machines take over factories,” the headlines proclaim; and the experts say, “where the technology has been implemented, increasing automization is leading to significant improvements.” Given Germany’s position as a manufacturing powerhouse and the fact that manufacturing exports are not only driving their economy but doing most of the heavy lifting to keep most of the EU from sinking under their own waste it is hard to argue that their automation-centered view of things is wrong.
There is another point of view, however, that carries considerable weight of its own: “How Toyota plans to build a better car company by replacing robots with humans.”
At one level it comes down to who you have more faith in – the people or the robots. The Germans bet on the robots, while Toyota puts its money on the people. “We cannot simply depend on the machines that only repeat the same task over and over again. To be the master of the machine, you have to have the knowledge and the skills to teach the machine,” says Mitsuru Kawai, the guy in charge of getting Toyota back to its people centered roots – at least so far as machining technology is concerned.
The Germans operate under the belief that a few smart people can design and program the technology, rendering production people largely unneeded (or at least not in need of any great skills and, hence, cheaper). Toyota operates under the principle that machines are not particularly bright on their own, and that they must be under the control of the people operating them.
The bigger philosophical difference, however, lies in the goal. The Germans (and most others) play to tie. Toyota plays to win.
Read what the Germans have to say about automation and it becomes apparent that it is all about getting things under control – just meeting the specs – prevent things from getting screwed up. “There are always fluctuations within an industrial production process - for example, due to irregularities in the materials being used, or deterioration of machinery over time. The smart technology was developed to regulate such peaks and lows.” The head guy from Siemens says, “Our error rate is now a phenomenal 12 errors per million products.” Worthwhile achievements, no doubt.
But the tune is different at Toyota, where avoiding the screw-ups is assumed, and they have higher aspirations: “’Fully automated machines don’t evolve on their own,’ said Takahiro Fujimoto, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Manufacturing Management Research Center. ‘Mechanization itself doesn’t harm, but sticking to a specific mechanization may lead to omission of kaizen and improvement.’” They aren’t looking to keep things under control. They are shooting for improvements – to continuously make the product and process better, and that is something the robots don’t know how to do. It takes people to do that – full time, dedicated people, such as the ones running the machines and making the products every day. When improvement is left to the smart folks in the Engineering Department, they become the constraint. The improvements occur when the project rises to the top of their “To Do’ list.
Of course, loss of improvement is not only the byproduct of automation; it is the unavoidable result of outsourcing, as well. The product is designed and whether it is sent to a lights out factory or a Vietnamese sweatshop the goal is to have the disconnected, uninvolved producer meet the specs – just don’t foul it up. Neither the sweatshop worker nor the robot are empowered, or have the knowledge or the motivation to initiate improvements. That only comes from employees like the ones the Toyota guy is working to breed.