The Robots Are Coming! A Future of Autonomation

Lean Blog - Technology Luddites

Even if we never find ourselves in the nightmarish futures imagined by The Terminator and The Matrix, people are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the capabilities of machines. Actually, people have been uncomfortable with this for over 200 years. From the earliest days of industrialization in the 18th century, to the 21st century’s upheavals brought on by big data and artificial intelligence, with new technology comes the common concern: “Am I going to be replaced by a machine?”

The History of Autonomation

Manufacturing has been dealing with this issue as long any other industry. Like with many manufacturing problems, Lean practitioners have been developing solutions. In fact, “Autonomation” or “Automation with a human touch” was one of the first principles developed in what would become known as the Toyota Production System of Lean management. This started so long ago that Toyota was better known for automated looms than for automobiles at the time.

Autonomation at Toyota

As strange as it might sound today, power looms and spinning frames for textiles were once among the most vilified technologies. The skilled tradespeople who had for generations depended on weaving for their livelihood feared that they would be replaced or forced to work for less money in unpleasant conditions. This fear was famously acted upon through violent protests by members of the Luddite movement in 19th century England. Today the term Luddite is typically used to poke fun at people who irrationally fear technology, but the movement was a sign of things to come.

There were other problems with early automated technology, aside from the fear of unemployment. The new levels of productivity came at a price: Defects and overproduction became major concerns. Decades after the Luddite movement faded into history, Japanese inventor and industrialist Sakichi Toyoda (The namesake of the Toyota Motor Corporation) developed an approach to automation that would ease the concerns of both industry and front line workers. Toyoda realized that as productive as automated looms could be, they still needed significant human intervention. For this reason, he created the Jidoka principle, or “Autonomation” wherein machines automatically stop in the event of a problem, allowing the issue to be solved by human operators before any wasteful defects occur. From these simple beginnings, an important pillar of Lean manufacturing would emerge.

The Principles of Autonomation

The Japanese word Jidoka simply means “Automation.” However, Toyota changed the spelling in Japanese, and Lean practitioners in other countries often miss this. The spelling of Jidoka contains three kanji. These symbols are associated with both pronunciation and meaning. The traditional spelling translates directly as “self, motion, transformation,” but Toyota added an additional component to the middle symbol (“dō” / “motion”). The added component is the radical for “person.” Although the resulting symbol is still pronounced “dō,” the meaning is changed from “move” to “work.” This additional meaning is why Jidoka in Lean is often translated as “Auto-no-mation.”
An explanation of Autonomation
The main insight of Jidoka is that automated machines, like any other tool, require skilled human guidance to function effectively and efficiently. With modern computer technology, some might dismiss Jidoka as a twentieth century relic, but it is still relevant. For even our most advanced artificial intelligence systems, independent learning is still a huge challenge. In the immediate future, automated machines will need human beings to design them, plan their processes, and program them. Just like in Sakichi Toyoda’s time, they still need people to respond when there is a problem.

The Future of Autonomation

Until artificial intelligence exceeds human intelligence in its ability to create and acquire new knowledge independently, the Lean principle of Jidoka will still apply. If computers ever gain the self-awareness necessary for Kaizen, we will have much bigger things to worry about than unemployment. Thankfully, that can be kept in the realm of science fiction for the foreseeable future.

I’ll be back,

Collin McLoughlin