Currently prevailing trend in global automotive industry assumes replacing employees with robots. Toyota has yet a different approach. The managers of the Japanese corporation claim that human participation in the process of production is still necessary and the robots should only make work easier.
The Japanese are sure that automation can be “more human.” They prove it also in their state-of-the-art factories. This is the case, for example, for Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky in Georgetown, the biggest plant of the Japanese company in the world. In the production halls of the area of 750 thousand square meters, over a half million cars – mainly intended for the American market – are produced every year. These are Toyota Camry and Avalon, and Lexus ES.
Recently, a thorough modernization of the factory which cost over 1.3 billion dollars was completed. The factory has been adapted to the production of a completely refreshed model of Camry. Despite these costly investments, the participation of the employees in the assembly of cars has not been decreased. The new solutions automating the work have been implemented, and… the company hired additionally about 700 persons.
The degree of process automation is not higher now than 15 years ago. Machines are excellent in fulfilling repetitive tasks, but they are not able to improve efficiency or quality of work. This can be done only by humans” – explains Wil James, President of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky.
Although for a decade, the participation of robots in manufacturing processes in Toyota’s factories has not changed significantly and remains on the level of 8 percent, productivity is still rising. The key to the success is expressed in the Japanese word kaizen, meaning constant development, in which all Toyota’s employees are engaged, proposing concrete improvements.
Toyota’s employees improved the production process
As an example, we can take rationalization of the assembly of fuel tanks. Previously, a heavy tank was lifted with the conveyor and then fastened by the workers with clamps and screws. It required work in an uncomfortable position with arms held up, so the employees made up a practical device which with one movement lifts the tank, placing it in the right position, and then fastens it to the car body.
Did the workers shed their jobs themselves? Not at all, they gained new important tasks. They are now controlling the quality of tanks assembly. They are responsible for checking all the fastenings and connection.
It seems that without replacing people with robots Toyota will become less competitive compared to other automotive companies which cut jobs and thus significantly decrease production costs. However, the Japanese manufacturer chose a different way to reduce costs: by technological development.
Higher level of kaizen
Toyota New Global Architecture is described as further evolution of kaizen. This is a natural development of a well-known Toyota’s production system used for many years consisting of the optimization of resource management. TNGA includes not only module unified structure of vehicle components, especially the floor pan, body, powertrain and steering elements, but also the technology and organization of production.
While developing TNGA, the focus was on the better use of materials and designing vehicles in a way that helps to reduce weight and dimensions of components and at the same time to achieve an optimum position of the center of gravity. It ensures better driveability and performance with reduced fuel consumption. The inventors paid attention also to the unification of components, including engines and structures. The number of so-called platforms was reduced from approx. 100 to fewer than 10.
Simultaneously, the company introduced production process enabling manufacturing of several models of vehicles on the same line without any production downtime. TNGA means various changes in the production process – even the shape of the line has changed.
The company resigned, for example, from large conveyors hanged on the rails under the roof of the facility that had been used before for transporting parts, such as engines, along with the electronically directed paths on the floor of the production halls. Toyota’s managers are proud that this solution let them reduce sizes of production halls, which enables saving costs of light, heating and air-conditioning, and in the case of new plants – also their construction costs.
Photo: Facebook/Toyota MM, Kentucky