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Toyota's thinking around Digital Manufacturing (#55)

Updated: Jan 11

It's all about your people and their skills

As you walk the aisles of the Smart Expo and lean in to listen to the sessions during Digital Manufacturing Week, it would be easy to think that Digital Manufacturing is solely about sensors, data, things and machines. As you explore the wonderful & innovative solutions I’d ask you to remember 2 things:


1) The first is something of a mantra - Digitalise where you SHOULD, not simply where you CAN. I talked about this previously in this blog “6 ways to build strong Industry 4.0 relationships between vendors & manufacturers”


2) Don’t forget about your people and their capability. This is central to Industry 4.0/Digital Manufacturing delivering the ongoing results we all need. It’s this that I want to impress upon you.


I have a friend in Japan who spends a lot of time talking to big hitters in Toyota Japan - VPs, Executive level people & Toyota Japan Global Production Centre (GPC) senior people. He regularly visits Toyota plants and we talk over zoom every few weeks. We have been to many of the same Japanese plants so I trust his judgement.


Toyota are just one data point, but they are a useful one in that they think deeply about ‘purpose’ before leaping into something. Below are key points of several conversations where my Japanese friend and I discussed Toyota approach to Digital Manufacturing.


  • Toyota don't want to just increase automation; they want to enhance human skill and use technology to identify kaizen - connecting data to problem identification.

  • So IoT/AI can, for example, monitor the temperature inside the machine - if an IoT sensor can automatically collect temperature data and pictures that the eye cannot, we can isolate new variables and see inside the machine.

  • IoT visualises where the eye cannot (problem identification), people can then use their wisdom to improve the situation and perhaps create a poka-yoke (error-proof device). Then they don't need to use IoT technology on that machine again until another problem like this occurs. This is how we avoid overcomplicating processes

  • Toyota see this as an evolution of technology in parallel with manual technology. They have a "core evolution" strategy, a marriage of human skill and advanced technology and, for example, developed the "Highly Skilled Worker Development System" 7 years ago.

  • The program lasts 5 years, is in 2 parts and targets a group of direct shopfloor associates in their 30's and below.

  • This is because the current 60+ year old direct associates started working in Toyota after they graduated high school in Japan decades ago. At that time the automation level was half what it is now so these elder workers had the opportunity to develop their manual skills.

  • But newly employed associates don't get this opportunity, especially Troubleshooting skills. This is a big concern for Toyota and is a reason why they introduced "super skill lines" like the one in the Kamigo engine plant showcasing and building in a very manual (takumi) method.

  • If the human skill level is low, the robot they teach will have a low skill level. Toyota wants to develop the skill of the takumi (top skilled, deeply experienced craft workers) because the technology of the takumi should become the standard...i.e., ONLY the most skilled takumis programme the robots then you can transfer human skill across to robots.

  • What about AI & Deep Learning? I hear you ask - as in, if the robot can learn rapidly on its own, then is low skill human teaching less of a problem?

  • This is not Toyota's logic - improvement is based on the recognition of problems on the gemba by humans. They want to improve in a low cost style and rely on gemba kaizen NOT jump ahead to introduce advanced technology (with all of the complexity problems that may bring)

Toyota are of course running many experiments with Digital Manufacturing. I have seen a good number of them in Japan myself. For example, using AI in some areas e.g., quality checking using 1000's of camera pictures to hone acceptance criteria BUT they don't want AI or IoT to automatically develop the improvement. They want human wisdom. They're also using Motion capture MOCAP suits and Eye Tracking to develop skill in people. These are just 2 examples.


It's ok to use IoT technology but you should not increase the number of sensors or cameras because the cost is too high and you create 'black box' areas.


What does all this mean in a nutshell?


The capability of your people will continue to matter at least as much as the sensors, data, things and machines you invest in. Come and see us on Stand IA4 in Innovation Alley to say hello and demo SempaiGuide, our digital learning and process improvement tool for use directly on the shopfloor.



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