Reversing course, Toyota replaces robots with human workers

For years, the stereotypical vision of automakers and other manufacturing companies has been that they are seeking to replace all human workers with robots to cut costs and increase efficiency. At Toyota, things are currently moving in the opposite direction.

Mitsuru Kawai, a 50-year veteran employee, was selected by President Akio Toyoda to promote quality craftsmanship at the company's factories. One of his key initiatives is to put more humans on the production line. The purpose of this move is to preserve and expand the company's knowledge base and identify opportunities to improve automated production operations.

"We need to become more solid and get back to basics, to sharpen our manual skills and further develop them," Kawai told Bloomberg News. "When I was a novice, experienced masters used to be called gods, and they could make anything."

Jeffrey Liker, a professor of industrial and operations engineering at the University of Michigan who has written multiple books about Toyota, told Bloomberg that Kawai's idea is a significant departure from the norm in the contemporary auto industry, in which most workers are merely expected to "feed parts into a machine and call somebody for help when it breaks down."

However, there is a compelling reason for industry leaders to be concerned about the loss of operational knowledge that occurs when workers no longer gain hands-on experience. After all, if the manufacturing industry gets to a point where no one actually understands how to make a certain part, how can companies be certain that the way they have programmed their machines to do the task is the most efficient method?

Kawai has developed 100 workstations for humans at plants located in Japan. These experiments have reportedly already helped the company reduce waste and shorten the production line for parts like crankshafts.

This is part of a broader effort to put the focus back on craftsmanship at the automaker, which has seen its long-standing reputation for quality tarnished by large-scale recalls in recent years. Bloomberg reports that President Toyoda has also called for a temporary moratorium on the opening of new assembly plants.

"He felt Toyota got big-company disease and was too busy getting product out," professor Liker explained.

Of course, Toyota will continue to use robots extensively in its factories and look for opportunities to automate its operations.

"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. However, he sees it as unwise to "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."

The company is also taking other steps to ensure its continued success in the 21st century. The automaker recently announced that it will move its U.S. headquarters, as well as elements of its sales, marketing, engineering and manufacturing operations, to Plano, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. According to the Associated Press, Toyota plans to begin work on a new campus in Plano by the end of the year and shift personnel and operations to the area over the course of the next two years.

Relocating to Texas offered several critical advantages. In addition to a business-friendly tax and regulatory environment, the state provides manufacturing companies with a well-developed industrial ecosystem that includes all of the logistical and CNC machining services needed to keep operations running smoothly.