Germany is a highly industrialized country. Not only do they make a lot of things, they make a lot of the things that make those things. As a testament to their manufacturing prowess, they are one of the most robot dense countries in the world. 273 robots are employed for every 10,000 people working in manufacturing. That number doesn’t seem too crazy, but it’s growing. The country with the most robot density is South Korea, which has nearly 400 industrialized robots per 10,000 workers. Right behind them is Japan at 332 units per 10,000 workers*.
Japan’s automation is hardly a surprise to anyone. They were the kings of electronics and manufacturing until China took over. And American automakers haven’t been the same since Japan starting exporting there’s to the US. Perhaps because they’ve been doing this longer than other, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that at Toyota they’re replacing some robots with good old fashioned workers. That’s right, humans are taking their jobs back!
Toyota is learning that when you automate too much you lose a couple of things. First, you lose the people that know how to make the item. You’ve replaced masters of their craft with people that push a button on a machine. Second, machines don’t really have the ability to make an item better. So if no human is making your item, no one is figuring out how to make it better. By bringing workers back to replace robots, Toyota is finding their human workers are making certain materials for their vehicles more efficiently than the robot ever could. Sometimes this is a limitation of the robot. Other times it’s simply the fact that a robot doesn’t know how to make something better until someone tells it what to do.
Part of the desire to do this is cultural at Toyota. They’ve been around a lot longer than you think and the company has had a long-standing culture of continuous improvement. Either through automotive competition or the economic woes of Japan, Toyota is getting back to basics in order to get better.
Don’t get confused and think millions of unemployed blue collar workers are going to be taking their jobs back from the machines. But Toyota’s plan runs counter to the narrative of machines taking our jobs. Yes, they do take our jobs. However we can always be one step ahead of them. The people with jobs in the future are the ones doing things machines can’t. Or, maybe figuring out how to do things the machines do better.
*Most of the data used here is behind a paywall so I don’t know where the US lands on the list. They are 4th in the automotive sector (one of the most automated), with 1,091 robots per 10,000 workers.