The Coming Auto Industry Battle: Toyota’s People vs. Tesla’s Robots?
Here’s an interesting article from Fast Company:
The sub headline reads:
While the rest of the auto industry increasingly uses robots in manufacturing, Toyota has taken a contrarian stance by accentuating human craftsmanship.
The article talks about how Toyota uses robotic assists to do just that… assist human workers on their assembly line in Kentucky.
That hearkens back to Principle #8 of The Toyota Way:
- Use only reliable, thoroughly tested technology that serves your people and processes.
Toyota isn’t anti-technology, of course. They view it as being supportive of people. Technology serves us, rather than replacing us in all cases. I’ve been taught that Toyota uses robots and automation in situations where the work would be unsafe for a human, or when quality would be better when done by a robot. Robot can do some work more consistently, but people have flexibility and creativity, which is helpful even in a car factory.
Toyota is not looking to automate for the sake of automating…
“Our automation ratio today is no higher than it was 15 years ago,” Wil James, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Kentucky…”
It’s been said that Toyota plants are generally LESS automated than the typical GM plant.
“For at least the last 10 years, robots have been responsible for less than 8% of the work on Toyota’s global assembly lines. “Machines are good for repetitive things,” James continued, “but they can’t improve their own efficiency or the quality of their work. Only people can.” He added that Toyota has conducted internal studies comparing the time it took people and machines to assemble a car; over and over, human labor won.”
The article also adds:
“Fundamentally, Toyota’s production principles were keyed to the notion that people are indispensable, the eyes, ears, and hands on the assembly line-identifying problems, recommending creative fixes, and offering new solutions for enhancing the product or process. Today, that idea seems quaint.”
Quaint, but still powerful.
As I blogged about here, GM famously wasted over $90 billion dollars under CEO Roger Smith and his dream of a “lights-out factory” that wouldn’t need any people. Some of that was driven by tension with the UAW, but in my two years at GM (1995 to 1997), the existing culture didn’t really respect the production workers. GM didn’t view them as a source of brainpower and creativity.
Did Roger Smith have the wrong vision – or was he just ahead of his time??
Fast Company writes about how Tesla and Elon Musk seem to share the robotic-driven future vision, as the article says there is a “nearly fetishistic appreciation of automation” in many companies these days.
“As an aspiration, lean is taking a back seat to lights-out-a manufacturing concept Elon Musk is championing for his Model 3 Tesla plant in which illumination will ultimately not be needed because the factory will be devoid of people…”
By comparison, at Toyota:
“…robots are not the strategic centerpiece, but merely enablers and handmaidens, helping assemblers do their jobs better, stimulating employee innovation and when possible facilitating cost gains.”
The TMMK plant president again extolls the value of people’s brains:
“And we challenge our workers to chop a second or more off if they can. If we gain back 55 seconds throughout the factory, we can ultimately eliminate a job and move that worker to another slot where they can begin the innovation process over again. Humans are amazing at finding those stray seconds to remove.”
That sounds like the “kaizen” improvement process. And notice how productivity improvement isn’t used to drive layoffs.
I wonder which strategy will win? Or can both Toyota and Tesla make their different manufacturing strategies work?
Could Tesla combine their amazing technology with the brainpower of their employees??