By Kevin Meyer
It started off well. I had high hopes. An article in the April 21st The Economist (wow… reading the future!) on manufacturing in the future.
BACK IN THE 1980s, when America’s carmakers feared they might be overwhelmed by Japanese competitors, many in Detroit had a vision of beating their rivals with “lights-out” manufacturing. The idea was that factories would become so highly automated that the lights could be turned off and the robots left to build cars on their own. It never happened. Japan’s advantage, it turned out, lay not in automation but in lean-production techniques, which are mostly people-based.
Yes! This is going to be great! Finally an article about the fallacious thinking that factories filled with robots are somehow more efficient than those filled with humans. We've been preaching for a long time how traditional accounting measures the "cost" of the pair of hands but doesn't assign a value to the creativity, experience, and ideas in the brain. Therefore crazy decisions are made, such as shedding thousands of workers in the U.S. to chase "cheaper" labor overseas… new folks with no experience.
I saw this first hand when touring Toyota's factory in Kyushu, Japan. At the time at least it was their most efficient factory – and the only robots were in areas with safety issues, such as plating. I could also tell you about how there were virtually no computers on the shop floor, how a manual kanban was used for completely random mixed model production, etc. But you can read all about it here. That factory's efficiency and productivity came from improvement ideas, something only humans can create.
Back to the article in The Economist. Unfortunately after making such a bold statement on people and robotics, the authors dives straight into the glories of robotics.
Many of the new production methods in this next revolution will require fewer people working on the factory floor. Thanks to smarter and more dexterous robots, some lights-out manufacturing is now possible.
Uh – didn't you just tell us that people were the key? Ok robots can help people – and perhaps I was being a bit unfair and mistakenly gave the perception that I was against all robots – I'm not. They have their place as aids and efficiency multipliers, and can be very valuable. Just don't expect them to deliver year-over-year 5% productivity improvements like people-filled factories can.
Eventually we come right back around to where we started, bracketing the long robot worship.
As Toyota discovered with lean manufacturing, production-line workers, given the chance, can come up with plenty of good ideas to improve productivity.
Yes they can, given the chance. There's value in them there brains.