Going against the overwhelming drive toward automation in the manufacturing sector, Japanese automobile giant Toyota is removing robots from its factory floors with astonishing results.

Human workers are staging a paradigm-defying comeback on the floors of Toyota’s factories in Japan, as the world-renowned car company makes a partial retreat from automated manufacturing.

Over the past three years, the company has replaced the robots at some of its Japanese plants with 100 manual-intensive workspaces staffed by human beings. Young workers are now entrusted with the crafting of crankshafts, axle beams and chassis parts in lieu of long-standing automated processes.

According to Toyota, the replacement of robots with human workers has led to a 10 per cent reduction in material wastage arising from crankshaft production at its Honsha plant, as well as reduced the length of the production line by a  stunning 96 per cent.

Mitsuru Kawai

Mitsuru Kawai

The mastermind behind the surprise return of human labour to Toyota’s production plants is Mitsuru Kawai, a corporate veteran who has been with the automaker for half a century and was specifically entrusted by President Akio Toyoda with the task of fostering a culture of craftsmanship within the company.

The withdrawal of robots from some of Toyota’s production processes runs completely contrary to the overwhelming drive toward automation in the modern manufacturing sectors of first world economies, and in Japan in particular. Japan is host to the greater number of industrial robots of any single country on the planet with an estimated 309,400 in total, and has the second highest number of robots per capita after South Korea.

Kawai does not plan a complete withdrawal of robots from the floors of Toyota factories, however. Instead, he envisages a symbiotic system in which the keen and inquiring intellects of human workers are used to enhance production processes which continue to remain largely automated.

The Toyota veteran points out that humans will only ever be able to truly improve automated production processes by acquiring a first-hand understanding of them on the work floor.

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

Takahiro Fujimoto, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Manufacturing Management Research centre, echoed Kawai’s views.

“Fully automated machines don’t evolve on their own,” said Fujimoto. “Mechanisation itself doesn’t harm, but sticking to a specific mechanisation may lead to omission of kaizen and improvement.”

Kawai believes human involvement will always be necessary for the improvement of automated processes.

“If there is ever a technology that’s flawless and could make perfect products, then we will be ready and willing to install that machine,” he said. “There’s no machine that is eternally stable.”