Now It’s Humans Assisting Robots | Sheelah Kolhatkar | The New Yorker

Steelcase ology

“[…]As a zone leader, Stinson is responsible for about fifteen employees on a section of the production line that makes parts for Steelcase’s Ology series—height-adjustable tables built for the standing-desk craze. Until last year, the plant workers had to consult a long list of steps, taking pains to remove the correct parts out of a cart filled with variously sized bolts and screws and pins and to insert each one in the correct hole and in the correct order. Now computerized workstations, called ‘vision tables,’ dictate, step by step, how workers are to assemble a piece of furniture. The process is virtually mistake-proof: the system won’t let the workers proceed if a step isn’t completed correctly. We stood behind a young woman wearing a polo shirt and Lycra shorts, with a long blond ponytail. When a step was completed, a light turned on above the next required part, accompanied by a beep-beep-whoosh sound. A scanner overhead tracked everything as it was happening, beaming the data it collected to unseen engineers with iPads.[…] ”

Sourced through The New Yorker

Michel Baudin‘s comments: This is excerpted from a long article entitled Welcoming Our New Robot Overlords, from the 10/23/2017 issue of The New Yorker that caught my attention because it’s not about robots and it seems to be in the same spirit as Omron’s Digital Yatai back in 2002: using technology to eliminate hesitation and to mistake-proof operations that are too long or have too many variants to allow operators to go “on automatic” while performing them.

When repeating the same 60 seconds of work 400 times in a shift, operators quickly develop the ability to execute rapidly and accurately with their minds elsewhere. If on the other hand, the takt time is 20 minutes or the work is customized for every unit, the work requires the operators’ undivided, conscious attention and their productivity is increased by systems like the vision tables described in the article, that prompt them for every step and validate its completion.

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Jidoka At GE And Amazon | Marc Onetto | Planet Lean

“[…]The principle of Jidoka applies everywhere, especially if we come down to its fundamental intent: preventing bad quality from going down the line and impacting the customer, understanding the causes of a problem as it happens, and giving the employee the authority (and autonomy) to stop the line when an issue occurs.”

Sourced Planet Lean

Michel Baudin‘s comments: The experience of an executive like Marc Onetto is always a good read. What he recounts, however, has everything to do with the TPS approach to quality and nothing to do with Jidoka. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate its value. I have seen plants where assembly work is continued on units known to be defective, with a repair area to fix them at the end. I have heard managers justify this practice with the mistaken assumption that it allowed them to ship faster and I have seen the improvements that result from stopping it, in line with what Onetto describes.

But we shouldn’t forget that Jidoka is not about employee empowerment but about automation. Regardless of whether it’s translated as “automation with a human touch” or “autonomation,” it’s still a form of automation. Onetto recounts being made to watch Sakichi Toyoda’s Type G loom stopping when threads broke but that’s not all it did. It also had automatic shuttle change, which solved the problem of what to do when shuttles run out of yarn that had bedeviled loom engineers for decades.

See Jidoka isn’t just about “stop and fix”, Jidoka versus automation, or check out Working with Machines

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Future of Lean: is robotic motion/transportation waste? | Christian Hohmann

Christian Hohmann

“Motion and transportation count among the 7 basic muda or wastes, that should be eliminated or at least reduced to their bare minimum in order to be leaner.

Now, with the probable rise of robotics, will robotic motion (and transportation) still be considered a waste?”

Sourced through Chris Hohmann’s blog


Michel Baudin‘s comments: It’s a valid question, but one that should be asked about handling and transportation automation in general, not just robots. It is also one that is not properly answered with the simplistic theory of value and waste that has been reiterated in the English-language literature on Lean for 20 years.

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Jidoka isn’t just about “stop and fix”

Jidoka (自働化)  isn’t just “stop and fix” or “stop and call.”  It is a complete approach to automation that includes building in the ability of a machine to stop when it malfunctions but also includes many other things. Sakichi Toyoda’s Type-G loom didn’t just stop when the yarn broke, it also had automatic shuttle change, which reduced the need for human intervention in its normal operations, and was a breakthrough that had eluded everybody else.

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Buy More Robots? | Adams Nager | IndustryWeek

“More robots means lower unemployment and better trade performance. […] The United States does not lose jobs because there is not enough work to be done but rather because U.S. industry is not competitive with foreign producers. More robots will help fix this.”


Michel Baudin‘s comments:Really? If you are not competitive, just buy more robots! But wait… Haven’t we heard this before? Isn’t it what GM did in the 1980s? Under Roger Smith’s leadership, from 1980 to 1989, GM spent about $40B on robots, and this investment didn’t make it competitive.

It doesn’t mean robots are bad, only that they are not a panacea. Toyota’s Global Body Line is designed to use welding robots where they are justified, and manual welding where not, using the same fixtures.

In an auto parts plant in Japan, I remember seeing a machining cell with old machines served by robots. A few yards away were new, automated lines that didn’t use robots.

It looked very much as if the old cell with new robots was the result of incremental automation, and that the lessons learned had been applied in the design of the new lines.

Robots are tools. If you know how to use them, they will help you; if you don’t, buying more is just a waste of money.

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‘Gods’ Make Comeback at Toyota as Humans Steal Jobs From Robots | Bloomberg

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“Inside Toyota Motor Corp.’s oldest plant, there’s a corner where humans have taken over from robots in thwacking glowing lumps of metal into crankshafts. This is Mitsuru Kawai’s vision of the future…”



Michel Baudin‘s Comments:

According to the article, Toyota’s management feels that maintaining the know-how to make parts manually is essential to be able to improve automated processes.

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Giving Credit for Jidoka | Bill Waddell

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“…Automation has long been a central tenet of lean.  It is in the automation versus labor cost issue where conflict arises.  Toyota spends a lot of time thinking about and working on jidoka – automation with a human touch.  In a nutshell, it means investing in automation to enhance human capability, rather than replace it…”



Michel Baudin‘s insight:

One of the rare articles in English where Toyota’s jidoka is accurately portrayed as a complete — and effective — automation strategy, rather than reduced to the notion of machines that stop when they malfunction. As Bill recognizes, there is more to it than that.

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What is Karakuri Kaizen?

Google “Karakuri Kaizen,” and you see a small number of Youtube videos from Japan, Thailand, Italy, and Hong Kong showcasing materials handling devices that rely on gravity, levers, cams and inertia to move bins in elaborate ways, transfer parts between machines, or deliver a controlled number of small parts to an operator’s hand.

Here is one from Japan’s JMAC with multiple examples:

Such devices have long been used as part of TPS and Lean, but now we have a generic name for them. The principles of Karakuri Kaizen given at the end of this video are as follows:

  1. Don’t use the human hand. Move objects automatically.
  2. Don’t spend money.
  3. Use the force of your equipment.
  4. Build it with the wisdom and creativity of the people of the shop floor.
  5. For safety,  don’t just rely on paying attention but build a device that stops automatically.

While “Karakuri Kaizen” is an alliteration that rolls of the tongue almost as easily as “cash for clunkers” or “toys for tots,” you may still wonder where “Karakuri” comes from and what it means. Until “Karakuri Kaizen,” I had never heard it stand-alone but always as part of “Karakuri Ningyo,” or Karakuri Dolls, which are wind-up automata with wooden gears and levers developed at toys in 18th-century Japan. The best known are tea-serving dolls, like the one in the featured image.

As Karakuri dolls are a reminder of ancient ingenuity, the term has a positive connotation in Japan. I once used a picture of one in a magazine ad for US-made automation software, to connect the product with the local culture. But the term, obviously, means nothing to anybody who is not Japanese.

Toyota’s history rests on key textile invention | Long Island Newsday

Kiichiro and Eiji Toyoda

Kiichiro and Eiji Toyoda around a loom

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It was a single thread that gave a man a dream, created a little history and displayed the talents of a remarkable mind and a family with resourcefulness in its genes.

Sakichi Toyoda wasn’t all that interested in fast-moving machinery, just machines in motion. It’s how the Toyota Production System began. It’s how an inventor with a sharp eye and even sharper mind built an empire…






Michel Baudin‘s insight:

A summary of Toyota history with the usual omissions:

  1. Automatic shuttle change. The ability to stop when thread broke was not the only innovation of Toyoda looms. Automatic shuttle change was equally important, not just to looms but as a forerunner of autonomation, the Toyota approach to automation.
  2. The German connection. Toyota learned much about car technology from Germany through Kazuo Kumabe and his research team, in particular reverse-engineering a 1936 DKW. The concept of Takt also came from the German Junkers company via the Mitsubishi Aircraft plant in Nagoya.

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Lean’s High-Tech Makeover | Technology content from IndustryWeek

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This article from Industry Week suggests that for Toyota to use high technology in Manufacturing is something new or a departure from its traditional system. It presents the Assembly Line Control (ALC) system as something new, when it has been in existence since at least the early 1990s.

We should not forget that even Ohno described jidoka as one of the two pillars of the Toyota Production System, on a par with Just-in-Time, and that jidoka means “automation with a human touch,” or “autonomation.”

The English-language literature often reduces jidoka to making machines stop when they malfunction, but the actual jidoka includes a complete automation strategy, with sequences of steps to automate both fabrication and assembly operations, as well as an approach to managing the interactions between humans and machines on a manufacturing shop floor.

This is what I wrote about in Working with Machines.

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