The human interface is vital not only for product design and development, but also for Yamaha’s manufacturing process. Gez Kahan takes a tour of the Toyooka factory
Any student of industrial manufacture knows that there were two principles behind 20th century mass production: mechanization of the process, as accelerated by James Watt’s steam engine; and the division of labour, as proposed by his compatriot Adam Smith. And these two Scottish brainwaves found their apogee in Henry Ford’s production line, introduced nearly a hundred years ago in the United States.
Productivity leapt, but the workplace was in danger of becoming dehumanized. And indeed, with twin goals of automation and efficiency, the logical next stage would be robot manufacture – but robots are costly, specialized and difficult to reprogram.
Moving forward required a bit of Japanese lateral thinking in the form of Kaizen (a ‘continuous improvement’ philosophy famously trail-blazed by Toyota). Applying Kaizen principles to manufacture allowed people to realize that production lines aren’t always the best use of resources. They are boring for the workers, and inflexible for the management. Cell (rather than line) production often makes much better use of that most valuable resource – human beings.
That is the case for the PA/DMI division at Yamaha’s Toyooka plant, which began in 1970, making wind instruments. DMI (digital musical instrument) operations stared three years later and it began producing professional audio products (the PA in PA/DMI) in 1998.
In total, Toyooka employs 1,500 workers on a 184,000 square meter site in Iwata City, Japan. The PA/DMI division accounts for around 300 people in a 24,000 square meter factory producing some 145,000 units per year.
What makes that output noteworthy is the wide range of models it encompasses. These include – on the professional audio side – the PM5D, PM1D, M7CL, LS9, DM/0 series consoles, PC and Tn series amplifiers, SPX2000 and SP2060 processors and the DME mixing engine series; while MI products include Tyros keyboard workstations, digital stage pianos, and Motif, MO8 and S90 synthesizers. Other PA/DMI factories, in Indonesia and China, produce larger volumes, but of a far less diverse product mix.
That, as Mr Ikeya, production manager of the Toyooka Factory explains, is because cell production allows much greater flexibility.
‘Of our three processes – moulding for keyboards, keyboard assembly, and final assembly for professional and digital musical instruments – the second and third both work on the cell production system,’ he says. ‘With cell production, assembly is undertaken by one person, or small groups – of two or three, or five or ten – working together at one workbench area complete with all necessary tools and machinery.’
Each cell is a self-contained unit, picking its own parts (which have already been through the parts reception and quality inspection process), taking them to the cell, assembling the product, inspecting and testing, and finally packing it ready for the shipping section.
‘If the quantity to be produced from a production line shrinks, we can reduce the number of people working at the line but we can't shrink the space used without incurring a huge capital cost,’ he says. ‘With a cell production system, however, it is fairly simple to rearrange production to suit changing priorities. We can reduce the number of cells working on a particular product and assign people to produce different models, or we can increase our production capacity of a particular model very easily.’
There are other benefits: should one cell hit a snag, the other cells are unaffected, thereby minimizing disruption. And because the entire assembly process is undertaken by a single worker or group of workers, problems are identified much sooner.
So are possible efficiencies. In fact production workers at Toyooka are encouraged to suggest improvements, such as making new tools or adopting new procedures. One example is the development of metal parts baskets which are more efficient both when picking components at the beginning of the shift and in keeping them conveniently to hand during manufacture itself.
Humanizing production in this way and requiring each worker to undertake multiple tasks means a slower learning curve, of course, and there are detailed standard operation procedures which aid the learning process. But learning a new skill – as one woman was, to her complete absorption, during my tour of the facility – also gives a sense of achievement.
Those achievements are noted.
‘We share information using what we call “KKTT Score Boards”, which are unique to the Toyooka factory,’ explains Mr Ikeya. ‘KKTT stands for “Kozo Kaikaku Total Thirty” in Japanese, its word-by-word translation being “30% structural reform”. In other words, they are always aiming to improve all measures of productivity – efficiency, quality, inventory and so on – by 30%.’
Each cell has a KKTT Score Board, which reflects the current situation of that cell, as well as its daily goals and problems. ‘Each worker’s skill level is also put up there,’ he adds. ‘We believe sharing information with all workers by visualizing all issues this way goes a long way toward keeping morale high.’
That’s also helped by the fact that they are building whole products instead of working only on a small part of a product, as they would be on a production line. That means the factory personnel get a sense of pride, especially when the products are used by the likes of Elton John, Carnegie Hall, La Scala and the Grammy Awards.
It’s something Yamaha’s customers can share in too – the fact that the products they are proud to own and care about were built by people who also cared, and were proud to have made them.