The Rise of the Machines

Posted by on Oct 25, 2011 in Aichi, Travel Volunteer Journey | 3 Comments
The Rise of the Machines

As the son-in-law-to-be of a mechanic, I suppose I should have more than a passing interest in cars – Katy definitely should. But neither of us are all that excited by them. They go broom-broom and some do it faster than others; generally they feel safer than planes, but less so than trains. We get in, we get out again. Things get done. The world spins, cars exist, our lives remain more or less the same.
Nonetheless, visiting the Toyota headquarters today was well worthwhile, if for nothing else than to watch the mind-boggling accuracy and efficiency of the production line. Men and machines dancing in harmony, working to maximum output to produce cars, the world’s most complicated Ikea kits.

I worked on a production line one summer. It was the worst job I ever had. I lasted two and a half shifts before I walked out an open door, leaving the soul-destroying monotony of it behind, and never looking back.
The people on the Toyota shop-floor seemed to cope a lot better than me. My problem was I couldn’t stop looking at my watch, and couldn’t switch my brain off long enough to ignore the fact that I was standing in the same spot for so long, doing the same tasks. I kept thinking: “Really, this kind of tedium is much better suited to the tireless machines.” They can’t be bargained with. They can’t be reasoned with. They don’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear – and they absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead the product is finished.
Unlike the Terminator, the machines at Toyota aren’t very human, but there is something eerily vital about them. The way they move their heads like great mechanised vultures pausing to survey a skeleton of a car, then having at it in unison… They’re unnatural. No, correct that, they’re entirely natural – natural for giant zombie robots. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, but it looked exactly like this.

Every day 450 new cars roll out of this plant, each with roughly 30,000 individual parts inside. This is just one of several major Toyota production plants around our world, which together produce 7 million new cars a year. The majority of the production is done by machines.
As the world’s population increases, so the demand for all cars goes up. Output rises, efficiency improves, profit margins rise. The number of robots goes up, the number of jobs goes down. Thus the illogical way of the world.
But, so far as colossal multi-nationals go, Toyota really don’t seem like too bad a bunch. Founded in the 1930′s by Kiichiro Toyoda, the success of the company gave the town in Aichi its name, not the other way around.
Confusing, yes – and more so when we were told why it’s not named after the founder. To write “Toyoda” in Japanese requires 10 strokes, but to write “Toyota” only requires eight. So what? Well, eight is a supremely lucky number in the Far East. Singapore, China, Japan – anywhere with strong Chinese influence, eight is prized for number plates, phone numbers, addresses, business names, anything. Mr Toyoda clearly thought so too – enough to take his family name off the title. Perhaps he would get some comfort from Americans who pronounce it “Toyoda” regardless of the spelling. Anyway, like Honda, Ford and half a dozen others, it started as a family business, survived, grew, and eventually took over a small part of the world.
In recent years Toyota has probably had more than its fair share of ups and downs. Most of them have been tied-in with their flagship hybrid car the Prius, which is either the saviour of the world, or an unsafe hippy mobile depending on who you listen to.
For non-caring, non-car owners like us, it’s still hard not to be at least a bit impressed by Toyota’s dedication to producing more energy-efficient cars. In an imperfect industry, they’ve been willing to spend billions of yen on research and development to become leaders in the hybrid market. Maybe they’re doing it because they want to save the planet, maybe it’s just to make more money from increasingly eco-concious consumers. Who knows? But at least they’re trying.

近い将来、自動車修理工を義理の父に持とうかという立場にいるのだから、もっと車に興味を持つべきなのかもしれない。まぁそんな事を言うなら、自動車修理工の娘であるケイティは絶対にそうあるべきなのだろうが、残念ながら私達は二人とも移動手段として以外の車に対して興味はない。目的地に早く、そして飛行機よりも安全に(でも電車のほどではないが・・・)到着できる乗り物。乗って降りて、目的を果たす。それが私達にとっての車である。

とは言いながら今日トヨタ本社を訪れる事は楽しみの一つであった。驚くほどの正確さと効率性を追求した工場。まるでそこで働く人たちと機械が楽しくダンスをしているかのような工場内は、だがそれはそれは複雑な構造になっていた。

以前工場でのアルバイトをした事があったが、私には最も向かないもので、2日と持たずやめてしまった。私はあまりにもその仕事に馴染めず、時計ばかりを見て、全く集中する事ができなかったのだが、ここで働いている人たちはまさに“プロ”だ。文句も言わず、議論もせず、ただひたすらに与えられた仕事を、それが完結するまで続ける。
トヨタにある機械たちは、もちろん機械なのだか、どこか“生きている”ような感じを醸し出している。頭や手を動かして仕事を続けている様子は、大きな怪物のロボットのようにも見える。工場内は撮影禁止だったのだが、それはまさにこの絵のようだった。

毎日この工場から450台の新車が生み出され、それぞれの車は30,000個以上の部品で成り立っている。もちろん今日訪れているのはトヨタが世界中に持っている工場の1つにすぎず、全世界の工場で年間7,000,000台の車が作られているのだ。

世界の人口は増え、車の需要も増える。効率性が上がり、利益も上がる。そしてロボットが増えると仕事は減ってしまう。世の不合理さだ。
だが世界有数の企業、トヨタではそのまだまだその不合理さには直面していないようだ。
1936年、豊田喜一郎がトヨタ自動車を設立し、その事から愛知県内のこの町は豊田市となった。彼の名前は豊田だが、なぜ会社はトヨタなのか?それはトヨダは10画、トヨタだと8画と縁起が良いからだそうだ。確かに中国をはじめアジアでは8はラッキーナンバーとしてとらえられているから、分からなくもないが、外国人が発音しやすいという事も考えたのかもしれない。

ホンダやフォードなど、多くの世界有数企業は家族経営から始まり、成長し、生き延びて、今や世界に名をとどろかせるほどの存在になっている。

トヨタは近年、ハイブリッド車“プリウス”でその名を世界に再度知らしめている。
私達のように車好きでなくても、車を所有してなくても、トヨタがその全てをかけてハイブリッド車を生み出している事に強い感動を覚える。億単位の投資をして研究・開発を進めて、ハイブリッド車の頂点を目指す。それが地球のためなのか、もしくはエコという流行りの分野で儲けようと思っているからなのか、それは私達には分からない。だが理由はどうあれ、彼らがやっている事が素晴らしい事には変わりない。

3 Comments

  1. Eunice
    October 25, 2011

    I’d like the “Bling” car at the end, please!

  2. cdb
    October 25, 2011

    Is this the one in 4-1-35 Noritake Shinmachi, Nishi-ku?

    • Katy & Jamie
      October 26, 2011

      Hi CDB, the plant was the Motomachi one in Toyota city. You can request a tour by calling this number 0565 29-3355. Totally worth it! I’m not a petrol head but it was so cool to see how it’s all put together.
      Katy :)