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.









  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 :)