Toyota is becoming more efficient by replacing robots with humans

Car makers have embraced automation and replaced humans with robots for years. But Toyota is deliberately taking a step backward and replacing automated machines in some factories in Japan and creating heavily manual production lines staffed with humans, according to Bloomberg.

It’s an unconventional choice for a Japanese company. Japan has by far the most industrial robots of any country, with an estimated 309,400 (pdf p. 17.) Only South Korea has a higher ratio of robots to humans.

Toyota’s latest strategy has two main aspects. First, it wants to make sure that workers truly understand the work they’re doing instead of feeding parts into machines and being helpless when one breaks down. Second, it wants to figure out ways to make processes higher quality and more efficient in the long run. The company worries that automation means it has too many average workers and not enough craftsmen and masters.

So far, people taking back work done by robots at over 100 workspaces reduced waste in crankshaft production by 10%, and helped shorten the production line. Others improved axel production and cut costs for chassis parts.

“We cannot simply depend on the machines that only repeat the same task over and over again,” project lead Mitsuru Kawai told Bloomberg. “To be the master of the machine, you have to have the knowledge and the skills to teach the machine.”

Kawai has spent 50 years at Toyota, so was steeped in its management philosophy. The manual lines are a refocus on “Kaizen,” or continuous improvement, and “Monozukuri,” which is essentially the art of making things well. It’s a re-commitment to management ideas behind the decades old Toyota Production System.

Machines are great at doing things quickly and at low cost. 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 car maker’s program also follows a philosophy of human capital similar to one outlined by George Mason professor Tyler Cowen, who argues in his book “Average is Over” that the jobs and gains in the economy of the future are going to go to people who can work with and improve smarter and smarter machines.

Toyota’s strategy may come at the cost of expansion. While pushing for more deliberate, manual manufacturing, Toyota is not building new factories for three years. It’s still the world’s largest automaker by sales, but Volkswagen is on its heels.


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