APPROACH TO AUTOMATION

There has been a major change in Japanese companies' approach to automation. In the 1980s, there was a drive towards "only robots manufacturing." Only a few people would be needed to sit in control rooms.

In the mid-1990s, as demonstrated by the new Toyota factory in Kyushu and a similar venture in Kentucky, there has been the return of the human on the factory floor. Does the shift reflect that the Japanese are retreating in their introduction of innovation, or is this part of their drive for continuous improvement? Respondents explained the shift with the following comments:

  1. During the bubble economy, flush with capital and lacking substantive competition from within and from abroad, many companies over-invested in automation.
  2. Technology has moved more rapidly than expected, and the cost of being "up-to-date" became prohibitive at the same time competition started to drive profits down.
  3. The need to customize products required a flexibility that machines just did not have. Humans could be retrained, and showed tremendous flexibility.

Table 1.1
Comparison of Utilization of Manufacturing Industries Capacity in Japan

Between the High in 1989, and March 19971

Classification

Allocation

as of 1989

Ratio of usage in

March 1997 compared to 1989

Manufacturing Industries

100.00%

89.40%

Iron & steel

5.40%

92.00%

Non-ferrous metals

3.48%

96.60%

Metal products

4.47%

93.60%

Machinery

48.32%

81.40%

- general

16.83%

77.90%

- electric

13.34%

87.40%

- transportation

16.77%

79.60%

- precision

1.38%

81.10%

Ceramic & sandstone

6.82%

94.40%

Chemical

12.36%

97.60%

Petroleum & coal

1.54%

102.90%

Pulp, paper & processed paper

5.82%

103.70%

Textiles

10.29%

96.50%

Rubber products

1.46%

100.00%

Table 1.2
Employment in Japan by Industry, 1990-19962

(1,000,000 workers)

1990

1996

% Increase, 1990 to 1996

All industries

62.49

64.86

+3.8%

Manufacturing industries

15.05

14.45

-4.0%

Textile

1.95

1.46

-25.1%

Chemical/petroleum/coal

2.07

2.03

-1.9%

Metal/machinery

7.23

6.95

-3.9%

Iron steel/non-ferrous materials

0.56

0.53

-5.4%

Metal products

1.40

1.33

-5.0%

Precision machinery/munitions

1.69

1.60

-5.3%

Electric machinery

2.50

2.38

-3.8%

Transportation machinery

1.08

1.10

+1.9%

Other manufacturing industries

3.79

4.02

+6.1%

In fact, practice has shown that automated systems, while efficient, can be rigid and have high initial costs. Manual systems, while inherently inefficient and involving high continuing cost, are flexible and dexterous. This flexibility for making changes means that one can produce a wide variety of products in a very short period of production and with rapidly changing technology.

The new factories with more people are not the old assembly lines pioneered by Henry Ford. While people are flexible, their output and quality can vary depending on social and psychological behavior, and they need retraining. The Japanese have approached these "human shortcomings" innovatively. For example, to address boredom, many new factories in Japan utilize distributed assembly lines, giving the worker control over not just a small assembly part, but over a subsystem. In this way, the repetition is not as boring and gives the worker self-confidence and a feeling of "being important." To overcome the problem of uneven quality, rather than waiting for the quality control and testing to be done at the end, as was done previously on an assembly line, each subsystem is tested individually. Problems are identified and resolved where they occur in the assembly line, and are not left to be found near the end. Finally, Japanese workers are enthusiastic about continually being retrained to meet new challenges.


1 Survey on Labor Force, Management and Coordination Agency of Japan, Tokyo, Japan.
2 Ibid.

Published: September 1998; WTEC Hyper-Librarian