Nobody predicted that the effect of coronavirus on the production industry would run this deep. We knew things would change, but we didn’t see the change coming, at least not in this manner. As the pandemic continues to ravage our world leaving indelible marks in the production industry, several production companies south of Japan’s Toyota city have had to make adjustments and changes to their production process and manpower to be able to cushion the impact of the pandemic. Robots have had a huge role to play in these adjustments.
Factory owners have begun reallocating some of the responsibilities of quality control from human inspectors to these robots. Toyota has witnessed a massive shift from the conventional “Go and See” structure which has played a huge role in revolutionizing the concept of mass production in the 20th century.
The auto parts division of Musashi Seimitsu Industry Co. Ltd now uses robotic arms in their inspection of machinery. The robotic arm is used in spinning a huge bevel gear, then using a directed light, the teeth of these machines are properly inspected to eliminate surface flaws. The total inspection and scanning process takes about two seconds to complete which is similar to time spent by highly trained employees to carry out the same action.
For these highly trained employees, inspecting these machinery daily requires dexterity and creativity, and the inspection rate is about 1000 machines per shift. The robots were introduced to ease the job of these workers and improve the production quality.
Before the pandemic, manufacturers utilized robots solely in production, while humans were left with the job of inspection and picking out defective machinery and parts. However, safety guidelines to prevent further spread of the virus such as social distancing has led to these companies changing the existing paradigm to allow robots take over the inspection process. The technological alternatives available to these companies for quality control has led to the replacement of human efforts in addition to remote monitoring, which was for a long time already done by robots.
The Toyota Production System in Japan has for years implemented practices like the “Go and See”, also referred to as the “genchi genbutsu” which has widely been adopted by other manufacturing companies in Japan and has been followed ardently. Replacing human input with these robots is a deviation of this practice.
As a result of this practice, quality control which has for a long time remained a process exclusively controlled by humans, has now been handed over to machines along with other aspect of production already being manned by robots. These companies have constantly utilized workers skilled in inspection to scan and monitor all sectors of the production process that was one job they held out from robots.
However, presently most companies including Toyota Motor Corps itself has begun the process of total automation of production processes sealed by the “Go and See” practice. Toyota Motor Corp, through their spokesman affirmed this adjustment saying they are willing to change any process of manufacturing, when it is the best option.
With the constant advancement in the area of artificial intelligence, customers also increase expectations and quality requirements from the product. Companies like Japan Display, which is a major supplier to various automakers and giant technological companies like Apple Inc, have experienced an increase in customer’s quality demand. Chief Manufacturing Officer of Japan Display, Kazutaka Nagaoka has a lot to say, “We’re increasingly seeing a gap between the quality of products made on regular production lines and the quality our customers demand.”
Although the quality of products made with totally automated processes is significantly higher and with a consistent level of quality from one product to another. Companies have encountered daunting challenges with automated inspections. Robots require samples to learn how to identify thousands of possible defects they may encounter later on. Companies like Musashi Seimitsu with a low rate of defective machinery, do not have the required samples to create an all encompassing algorithm. The solution, however, came when Ran Poliakine; an entrepreneur from Israel, applied the artificial intelligence and optics technology he had previously used in medical diagnostics to the production process.
The main idea was to instruct the robots to identify the good machines and focus on them rather than the bad ones, by developing the algorithm to perfection or at least near perfection.
With these companies constantly searching for improved alternatives to the conventional process of production as a result of the pandemic, utilizing various technologies to improve and sustain quality appears to be the best option if they are to stay ahead of the competition and continue to serve the unique needs of their customers.