Economy

Takumi, Toyota's Secret Weapons To Train The Robots

Like manufacturers globally, the world's largest carmaker uses robots to help build its cars. But they are "trained" by a small group of human experts the brand nurtures to be the very best.

A Japanese "takumi" passing on his knowledge to the next generation.
A Japanese "takumi" passing on his knowledge to the next generation.
Philippe Mesmer

TAKAOKA — In an isolated area of this 520,000-square-meter Toyota production site in central Japan's Takaoka — where 25 million vehicles have been produced since it opened in 1966 — Hisao Harada is using spray gun to paint the radiator grill of an iQ, a small city car. His movement is fast, fluid, precise.

Harada has been working here for 27 years and is a Toyota takumi, one of the company's 400 to 500 in-house experts who master to perfection a single technique and whose missions are very specific. One woman, for example, specializes in electronic circuit welding.

"We can send them anywhere in the world to train others, improve, fix problems," explains Toshitami Nagase, deputy head of Takaoka's painting workshop, where the Japanese company tests new techniques.

The takumis and their extreme specialization are essential to the success of Toyota, which became the world's largest car manufacturer three years ago. Between January and June 2014, the company sold 5.1 million vehicles globally. Sales rose 2% in the second quarter over the same period the previous year, to $62 billion.

The manufacturer had never sold so many cars in a single quarter, despite a 4% drop in Japan, the consequence of an April 1 hike in the value-added tax.

When the experts age out

Toyota plans to sell more than 10 million cars in 2014, which would be a first for any manufacturer. To reach this goal, the group relies on its takumis, though this source of expert wealth is being depleted.

"Most takumis are nearing retirement age," says senior technical executive Mitsuru Kawai. "We realized how important it was to pass on their knowledge."

First, the firm spots the best young workers in training. The selected ones then follow a three-year course, which includes one year in one of the company's Global Production Centers, before going to several factories to develop a form of companionship.

The project was developed after the severe recall crisis of the late 2000s that left Toyota badly shaken. In 2009 and 2010, the company had to recall close to nine million vehicles, most of them in the United States, for design flaws. This ended a reign of exceptional sales growth, which saw Toyota sell 500,000 extra cars every year.

The Japanese carmaker was the target of a strong media campaign. After taking the lead in June 2009, Akio Toyoda, the founder's grandson, had to testify before the U.S. Congress during a high-profile 2010 hearing. Toyoda later admitted that the company's development "may have been too quick."

"That was the worst crisis I saw in my 51 years at Toyota," Mitsuru Kawai remembers. Now 66, he grew up in Koromo, the central Japanese town that is the manufacturer's fiefdom and was renamed Toyota City in 1959. Kawai went through Toyota Academy as an apprentice. He climbed the ladder little by little and now leads the takumi project. "The previous crises, the oil or the financial crisis, were external problems," he says. "But with the recalls, it was about products that were our responsibility."

The whole affair forced Toyota to rethink and reorganize its quality control. At the urging of Akio Toyoda, the carmaker created an independent service in charge of these issues and delegated more power to regional subsidiaries to deal with incidents. Having spent 25 years in different positions and in different markets, this automobile fan knows the company's culture well. For him, the conception of a new model is similar to "the painstaking work of rebuilding a Shinto shrine." He decided they had to go back to the core values of the "Toyota way."

The promotion of new takumis is supposed to keep Toyota know-how alive, a principle that is not unlike monozukuri — literally "to make things" — itself deeply rooted in Japan's industrial culture. By doing so, the company is demonstrating its willingness to change the relationship between humans and the robots that are integral in car manufacturing.

"Don't believe that robots do better quality work than humans," explains Shinichi Kato, who is in charge of the painting workshop at the Takaoka factory. "Sure, a robot can repeat a task at a high-level. But somebody needs to teach it how to do it." And only someone who is an expert in his field can do that.

On the painting line, an endless flow of cars passes, and robots paint them. Sometimes, a human — a worker must be able to replace a machine that is stopped — takes over. That's when the similarity of the movements is striking. The robots at Takaoka are not jerky but instead are a perfect copy of the smooth workers' gestures. "Improvement after improvement, we've managed to optimize the robots' procedures and the quantity of paint we use," Kato says. Humans then control the work with a naked eye.

This all allows Toyota to reduce the number of employees in charge of one task, and as a result, to lower production costs. Thanks to robot improvement, the carmaker reduced the number of workers on a painting line from 16 to just six. "But we don't reduce the number of employees," says Mitsuru Kawai. "Those liberated are appointed elsewhere."

Improvements in the installation of car door seals allowed the company to save 39 cents in production costs per vehicle. Put together, these efforts have led to spectacular results. Since 2008, Toyota has reduced its costs by $14.4 billion.

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Green

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.


"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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