To a certain extent, Eli Whitney created modern manufacturing when he invented the concept of interchangeable parts for guns rather than having craftsmen make them individually. That led to the assembly line and robot-run manufacturing. Now, Toyota hopes to improve car manufacturing by going back to craftsmen.
The company is replacing robots with humans in its Japanese plants to make sure people still know how to make the parts, and to look for ways in which the manufacturing process can improve. While robots can manufacture things the way they’re set up to do, they aren’t capable of improving on the process.
Meanwhile, Toyota – the world’s largest carmaker — is putting a three-year moratorium on building new car plants, and is focusing on quality and efficiency rather than on growth, according to Bloomberg. The company had announced a year ago that it intended to redesign its cars, increasing the efficiency of the development process by 20 percent to 30 percent. In addition, Toyota said it wanted to make its cars simpler, easier to manufacture, and of higher quality by integrating the operations of suppliers and divisions responsible for part and major component procurement, production engineering and R&D. And, going back to Eli Whitney, the company is looking for ways to use more standard parts and to order parts for multiple vehicles in bulk.
In one factory in Honsha, which makes crankshafts, switching to manual processes has enabled Toyota to eliminate 10 percent of material waste and to shorten its production line by 96 percent compared with three years ago, Bloomberg writes. Switching to humans rather than robots has also enabled Toyota to improve production of axle beams and cut the costs of making chassis parts, Bloomberg adds.
“Machines are great at doing things quickly and at low cost,” writes Max Nisen in Quartz. “But people—especially ones with the experience of performing tasks themselves—bring craftsmanship, insight into process design, and consistency of quality. Toyota has found that the race to reduce the human element can end up making processes less efficient.”
The move actually makes a lot of sense, agrees Joel Hans in Manufacturing.Net. “If we reach an era where no one knows how to actually manipulate a piece of metal into a crankshaft or any other part in a car, how will we effectively program a machine to do it?” Other auto manufacturers might follow suit, he speculates.
Steve Leavitt, GM of U.S. Cloud Solutions for Exact