At a time when virtually everyone's afraid of losing their jobs to robots, one prominent Japanese company is charting a counter-intuitive and radically different course to the future — one in which skilled human workers are poised to make a comeback.
Back in the day, master craftsmen in Japan were called "Kami-sama," which translated literally means "gods." These days, however, the advent of robotics has turned these "gods" into anything but. Indeed, as time passes, and as human workers get steadily shunted to the sidelines, our need to learn and apply manual skills has diminished dramatically.
But if the Toyota Motor Corporation has its way, the Kami-sama will be making a comeback, which is highly ironic considering that this is the very company that set the breakneck pace for auto manufacturing automation in the first place.
Citing a need to "become more solid and get back to basics," and "to sharpen our manual skills and further develop them," Toyota CEO Mitsuru Kawai wants humans to take the place of machines in plants across Japan so workers can develop new skills and figure out ways to improve production lines and the car-building process.
The Japan News reports:
"Toyota views their people who work in a plant like this as craftsmen who need to continue to refine their art and skill level," said Jeff Liker, who has written eight books on Toyota and visited Kawai last year. "In almost every company you would visit, the workers' jobs are to feed parts into a machine and call somebody for help when it breaks down."
The return of the Kami-sama is emblematic of how Toyoda, 57, is remaking the company founded by his grandfather. The chief executive officer has pledged to tilt priorities back toward quality and efficiency from a growth mentality. He's reining in expansion at the world's largest automaker with a three-year freeze on new car plants.
The importance of following through on that push has been underscored by the millions of cars General Motors Co. has recalled for faulty ignition switches linked to 13 deaths.
"What Akio Toyoda feared the company lost when it was growing so fast was the time to struggle and learn," said Liker, who met with Toyoda in November. "He felt Toyota got big-company disease and was too busy getting product out."
While the freeze and spread of manual work may bear fruit in the long run, it could come at the expense of near-term sales growth and allow GM to Volkswagen AG challenge Toyota by deepening their foothold in markets such as China.
The effort comes as Toyota overhauls vehicle development, where the world's largest carmaker will shift to manufacturing platforms that could cut costs by 30 percent. It also underscores Toyota's commitment to maintain annual production of 3 million vehicles in Japan.
Fascinating! This could be the start of a broader trend.
In addition to the reasons already cited, such a trend could be caused by a reaction to massive levels of technological unemployment that's sure to befall us in the very near future. What's more, it could be a way to repair the economy when workers from all walks of life no longer have any work; it would be a kind of neo-Fordism — a way to ensure that people actually have money to spend on products and services (otherwise, mass automation will result in the complete evaporation of the working and middle classes). Sadly, this trend could also result in unacceptably low wages, as there will never be a time when robots or AI (or ems for that matter) will be more expensive than human labor.
Read the rest of the article at The Japan Times.