COMMENT: TPS will move with the times, but automakers must heed Davos warning

The all-transforming force of Industry 4.0 will make its mark on the Toyota Production System and its variants, but will not shift their fundamental focus on people. By Xavier Boucherat

The Toyota Production System (TPS) changed everything for the automotive industry: a combination of deeply influential manufacturing and management concepts helped make the Japanese automaker the largest in the world, and led to its rivals seeking to emulate the system under different guises.

The Ford Production System, FCA’s use of World Class Manufacturing, GM’s Global Manufacturing System: these and numerous others rely on ideas such as lean manufacturing, just-in-time (JIT) assembly and constant improvement, all of which are likely to remain relevant to the industry for decades to come.

Of greatest interest as the Toyota Production System evolves will be the changes the industry makes to keep people at the heart of vehicle manufacturing

At a time when improved connectivity is creating potential for even leaner, smarter manufacturing, a discussion of the future of TPS could be more relevant than the average industry outsider may appreciate: people may not have heard of TPS, but after the 2019 World Economic Forum, they’re very likely to have come across Industry 4.0.

Almost everyone speaking at the annual meeting of minds held in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, touched on the topic in one way or another, and advances in artificial intelligence (AI), Edge Computing, sensor technology and Big Data analytics could all help manufacturers keep pace with trends and demand without sacrificing any of the efficiency which TPS has helped the industry hone.

High levels of customisation in passenger vehicles, for example, create new challenges for both lean manufacturing and JIT assembly. In the factory of the future, cyber-physical systems, improved connectivity between manufacturers, and automated stock management and picking systems could lessen the strain, whilst AI-based platforms could allow for quick, optimised production routine changes.

The Ford Production System, FCA’s use of World Class Manufacturing, GM’s Global Manufacturing System: these and numerous others rely on ideas such as lean manufacturing, JIT assembly and constant improvement

That said, although automation has always been important to TPS, its real success has been the empowerment of workers, clearly delineating tasks and eradicating ‘waste’, a reference not just to material, but also to time spent performing non-value-added work.

As was also spoken about at length at Davos, under the banner of ‘Leadership 4.0’, this may well become trickier with upcoming advances: greater automation could require automakers and other industry manufacturers to take initiative and reskill their workforces. As such, of greatest interest as TPS evolves will be the changes the industry makes to keep people at the heart of vehicle manufacturing.

Further thoughts and in-depth analysis on the topic can be found in the latest Automotive World special report, Reinventing the Toyota Production System, which is available now.

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