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Toyota Is Securing Efficiency By Replacing Robots With Humans

The manufacturing sector was one of the first to fall to automation, and one of the first signs that a robot revolution might well be upon us. Scores of jobs were lost, replaced by machines capable of handling twice the workload at half the cost. These machines brought about a new era in manufacturing, particularly in the automotive industry; it's thus not surprising that many of the greatest innovations we've seen in robotics in recent years have been tied to automotive manufacturing.

However, not everyone's jumping on the robotics bandwagon just yet. While most seem to have set their eyes straight ahead, and can't wait to dive into the future, Toyota's decided to take a step back. Several, in fact. The organization is deliberately replacing the machines in some of its Japanese factories, creating manual production lines staffed with human employees. As Quartz notes, this is a move that for Toyota is unconventional at best; Japan has the highest volume of industrial robots in the world, with an estimated 309,400.The only other country that comes close to Japan's level of automation is South Korea, which boasts the world's highest ratio of robots to humans. 

Alright, so we've established that what Toyota is doing is completely abnormal for the company. So...why are they doing it, then? What could they possibly hope to gain? 

As it turns out, there are a few things. First and foremost, the firm wants to ensure that its workers truly understand what they're doing, as opposed to simply feeding parts into a machine and being helpless when it breaks down. Second and most importantly, it's examining its human workers for ways to improve its processes in the long run, making them more efficient and of higher quality.  The concern on Toyota's part is that automation has too many laymen, and not enough masters.

It's looking to change that. 

"We cannot simply depend on the machines that only repeat the same task over and over again," project lead Mitsuru Kawai told Bloomberg, in a warning that seems taken straight out of a science fiction novel."To be the master of the machine, you have to have the knowledge and the skills to teach the machine." 

The most surprising part of this whole venture is that Toyota's actually made some progress with the initiative. Waste from crankshaft production is already down 10%. The production line for axels has been improved as well, while costs have been cut for chassis parts. Turns out, there are still some things humans can do better than robots - quite a few, actually. 

See, although machines are great for efficiency, that doesn't necessarily mean they're particularly skillful. Automated systems have no way of ensuring consistency of quality, nor are they capable of bringing craftsmanship, insight, or creativity onto the production floor. Ironically, says Toyota, this means that the rush towards automation has potentially damaged efficiency in some cases, as employers have ignored the benefits of intelligent, living staff in favor of mindless machines. 

See, while a completely automated factory will outperform one staffed by humans in the short term, the work it produces will inevitably be of lower quality than that created by human employees. The machines also won't have access to innovations in the production process, either; this means that while the humans improve over time, the machines will invariably remain the same. In short, Toyota's experiment has demonstrated a powerful truth about modern robotics: 

Without a human hand to guide them, machines simply aren't capable of keeping up.