top of page
  • Performance Drivers Pty Ltd

Is a human or a robot more efficient?

Using robots like Tesla or the Toyota way

Image courtesy of Tesla

The automotive industry has more industrial robots than any other. Kia claims massive productivity improvements in factories with more than 1,000 robots on assembly lines. Among leading car makers, paint and body shops which require constant repetition, consistent quality, and often present safety and ergonomic challenges, are mostly automated. And the contemporary threat of lights out automated factories without a human in sight would seem to be just around the corner.

Challenging the car manufacturing status quo

Maverick entrepreneur Elon Musk says to investors, "You really can't have people in the production line itself. Otherwise you'll automatically drop to people-speed."

He advocates the power of speed and thinks robots are too slow if you can see them when they are moving. Envisaging Tesla's factories as a machine to build a machine, he aims to build Tesla's Model 3 and other vehicles at speeds unseen among the other auto-makers.

Musk boldly announced the aim to produce 500,000 Model 3 vehicles in 2018. Subsequent statements by the company and press reports progressively reveal the lack of output from what is one of the most robotics-driven assembly lines in the world:

  • In November 2017 Musk reveals there are challenges automating the production of the Model 3

  • Only 260 cars are produced in the 2017 end of year quarter

  • A sophisticated automated parts-conveyance system is installed in February 2018

  • On 3 April Musk reports producing 2020 cars in 7 days, but he's pulling all-nighters and sleeping in the factory to drive the process

  • By 13 April they report producing 2000 cars a week

  • On 16 April they announced a production halt to improve production

  • They get rid of the entire automated parts-conveyance system by the end of April

  • In May there is a six-day stoppage to fix the assembly line

  • An internal email announces a target of 6000 vehicles a week during June

  • In the end-of-financial year quarter they produce 1550 vehicles

  • On 1 July Musk announces they produced 5000 vehicles in a week

Tesla is not the first car builder to ambitiously attempt leading-edge automation and pour money into the effort. In a drive to face down foreign competitors in the 1980s General Motors spent billions on advanced robotics to achieve lights out automated production, without seeing a return on investment.


Yes, excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake. To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.

Tweet by Elon Musk


Efficient production owes more to humans than robots

While Elon Musk is telling investors that Tesla will overcome people-speed with robotics, leading auto-makers Toyota, Mercedes, and Honda are working on striking the right balance between people and robots.

Research in a highly automated German car body production plant found as many as 20 to 30 human interventions per shift were needed to prevent major flaws in quality and productivity. Agile, cost effective, and high-quality operations in the automotive industry require adaptability and the ability to change quickly, and humans can be more flexible and capable than production line robots. They can reason, make decisions, and re-organise work faster than robots can be reprogrammed.

GM automated the Hamtramck plant in the 1980s. Compared to a Ford plant nearby with many fewer robots, the GM plant's industrial robots didn't eliminate the need for industrial workers. GM's plant employed 5,000 people, Ford's employed 3,700 and out-produced the GM factory by a wide margin.

Human labour also won in studies conducted by Toyota comparing the time it took people and machines to assemble a car.

Removing robots and using the human touch to return to the Toyota way

Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda is looking to the 1970s to turnaround a growth fueled series of problems culminating in massive recalls and a US$1.2 billion Department of Justice fine in 2014 for deception about unintended acceleration problems in their cars.

Toyoda is turning priorities back towards the quality and efficiency which Taiichi Ohno combined to create the Toyota Production System - the precursor to Lean. For decades the system drove higher productivity and quality than competitors like GM, Ford, BMW and Mercedes. Now the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) updates the system and company veteran Mitsuru Kawai, a former blue-collar worker who was working in the company in the Ohno era, is leading the implementation and supervising all in-house plants.

Expecting to reduce manufacturing expenditures by as much as 40% by looking backwards and returning to craftsmanship appears counter-intuitive, but Kawai tells Bloomberg, "We cannot simply depend on the machines that only repeat the same task over and over again. To be the master of the machine, you have to have the knowledge and the skills to teach the machine.”

There is no vision to do away with robots at Toyota, but they are not the centrepiece of the production strategy. Kawai removed some robots from production lines and introduced more than 100 manual workspaces into Toyota's factories. He wants Toyota's workers to see robots as tools to enhance performance and to have the expertise to build a car, so they take a broad view of their responsibility to design improvements that contribute to consistently producing high-quality vehicles.

Undertaking the physical work of forging and making car parts has led to workers improving the production of axle beams, cutting the cost of making chassis parts, and reducing the length of the assembly line and waste in crankshaft production. The workers better use of materials and use of lean concepts fueled these results, which are being applied to new models' production lines.


“Humans should produce goods manually and make the process as simple as possible. Then when the process is thoroughly simplified, machines can take over. But rather than gigantic multi-function robots, we should use equipment that is adept at single simple purposes.”

Mitsuru Kawai, head of global manufacturing for Toyota


In 2017, Toyota invested US$1.3 billion implementing the TNGA platform in the large Georgetown, Kentucky plant. Every new vehicle on TNGA platform will fit the plant's production infrastructure. Simplifying model changeovers, and quick shifts in body-style and powertrain line-up, allowing production to match demand.

The production environment at Georgetown has been designed for human workers to be involved. Assembly-line ergonomics have been improved to make the job easier for workers, and enhance vehicle quality. Carriers raise and lower cars for optimal access as they move down the line, special devices assist line workers with trickier tasks, and brighter LED lighting has been installed in some areas.

When Tesla was installing its automated parts-conveyer in 2018, Toyota had already moved away from overhead conveyers, which used to carry engines to the assembly line. Moving pedestals now carry the engines, skating across the factory guided by electronic sensors in the floor. As a result, assembly line workspaces are less cluttered, so workers can move around more quickly and easily.

Plant requirements are also smaller reducing costs on construction, real estate, cooling, heating, and maintenance. New plants like one in Guanajuato, Mexico cost about 40% less to build than a traditional assembly plant. While at Georgetown, space will be freed up as the layout and logistics are optimised around the TNGA platform.

Toyota doesn't eschew the speed that Elon Musk sees as his competitive weapon. Wil James, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Kentucky says, “In our world, we see work in 55-second bursts, and we challenge our workers to chop a second or more off if they can. If we gain back 55 seconds throughout the factory, we can ultimately eliminate a job and move that worker to another slot where they can begin the innovation process over again. Humans are amazing at finding those stray seconds to remove.”

When Toyota was introducing robotics in the 1980s, it was redesigning its work systems at the same time and seeking ideas from workers. Today, it focuses on vehicle improvements; lighter components, greater economy of engine and vehicle models, and design that addresses performance and fuel efficiency, all offered at aggressively competitive prices.

Speaking with Fast Company Toyota's Wil James sums up the importance of human efforts to the company, “Our automation ratio today is no higher than it was 15 years ago. Machines are good for repetitive things, but they can’t improve their own efficiency or the quality of their work. Only people can.”

Robots: Leading vehicle makers find limits

Toyota is not alone in finding that human touch and reasoning have advantages over automated alternatives.

Markus Schaefer, production chief at Mercedes-Benz told Bloomberg in 2016, “Robots can’t deal with the degree of individualisation and the many variants that we have today. We’re saving money and safeguarding our future by employing more people.”

Mercedes-Benz has replaced robots to take advantage of the adaptability and flexibility of humans, as machines can't work with the complexity and pace of change involved in delivering high levels of vehicle customisation.

Tom Shoupe, the chief operating officer of Honda’s Ohio manufacturing unit which transforms 3 million parts into 1,900 finished vehicles each day, says “We can’t find anything to take the place of the human touch and of human senses like sight, hearing and smell”

Until systems cognition, dexterity, and sensory skills develop further, automation and AI won't exceed many human capabilities and a factory without humans in the production line seems remote for complex products.


bottom of page
Real Time Web Analytics