Automobile industry

Three Japanese words help Maruti Suzuki strike a balance between robots and humans

Kitanai (dirty), Kiken (dangerous) and Kitsui (difficult) sum up the carmaker’s philosophy for deploying machines instead of men.

For 16 hours every day, a serpentine production line coiled inside a 600-acre facility in Manesar shapes and slots steel, rubber, and plastic into shiny new Maruti Suzuki cars.

The largest facility of India’s biggest carmaker, some 55 m away from New Delhi, works at a prodigious pace. Amid a somewhat dystopian industrial township of glass-fronted buildings, boxy manufacturing units and dusty sidewalks, this sprawling factory typically spits out 3,100 cars in 960 minutes daily. The rate of over three vehicles every minute helps Maruti Suzuki, majority owned by Japan’s Suzuki Motor Corp, maintain its control over 47% of India’s passenger car market.

Inside the factory’s cavernous hangers, some 7,000 workers and 1,100 robots work in tandem. Around noon at the welding shop, where steel beaten into various automotive shapes is hauled in, there is a constant whirring of yellow robots fusing disparate pieces into the familiar frame of a car. Sparks fly as the robotics welding arms hit the metal, the action unfolding safely enclosed within secure pens. An array of green and orange lights blink intermittently, signalling to a handful of yellow-helmeted operators who watch over carefully.

At one point in the production process, some 20 half-built car bodies in a straight line are worked on by 250 robots, providing a display of robotic gymnastics that can prove bewildering to the untrained eye. But there is a method to the madness.

The company’s underlying philosophy for deploying robots instead of humans in certain operations is outlined by three Japanese terms, or the 3K, explains PK Roy, Maruti Suzuki’s senior vice president for the Manesar plant.

Kitanai (Dirty)

Kiken (Dangerous)

Kitsui (Difficult)

Once used to describe jobs that were shunned by Japan’s native workforce and usually taken over by immigrant workers, 3K has been adapted by Maruti Suzuki as the yardstick to decide where robots will replace human workers. “The idea is that where ever we have 3K operations, we will use robots,” said Roy. “It is practically impossible for a human to do that job consistently.”

Line ’em up. (Credit: Maruti Suzuki)
Line ’em up. (Credit: Maruti Suzuki)

At the weld shop of the carmarker, for instance, robots are gaining ground, especially as the company uses higher volumes of high-tensile steel in its vehicles. To cut and weld these thinner and tougher steel sheets into car bodies, Maruti Suzuki is deploying smaller, faster and more flexible robots. With 10,000 tonnes of steel consumed by the Manesar facility, the volumes involved are not insignificant. At the paint shop, too, the machines have taken over. And every one of them is imported.

Yet, there are large swathes of the Manesar factory where humans are simply irreplaceable – right now, and for the foreseeable future. On the stretch of the assembly line where doors are fitted on car bodies, young, uniformed men work in an unerring flow. As an endless procession of car bodies move along a conveyer belt, one worker reaches out to grab a backdoor fixed on a rig. In under a minute, he manoeuvres the rig to the right spot, pulls the door out, plonks himself on the back seat, fits the door into the body, tightens everything up and then steps out to prepare for the next car.

“Typically, where judgement is required, where the eye or some kind of sensing is required, we can’t use robots,” said Roy. “Delicate work needs hands.”

From seats belt to air-conditioners and light fittings to exterior trims, Maruti Suzuki can’t help but rely on experienced workers who can get the job done precisely and quickly. And as cars for Indian customers become laden with an ever increasing list of features, Roy reckons that a factory like Manesar will probably need more hands, not less. “In 1983, for example, we were predominantly producing non-AC Maruti 800s. But now, today all the cars have this as a standard feature,” he said. “If you add more features, you need more people to do assembly.”

At a time when automation seems poised to threaten millions of jobs in India, especially in the labour-intensive manufacturing sector, Roy’s prognosis is upbeat. It is also one that analysts agree with. “The content in a car is steadily increasing and we need a higher number of people to assemble the car as the production line would have a higher number of stops,” said Deepesh Rathore of Emerging Markets Automotive Advisors, a Gurugram-headquartered consultancy. “Looking across the supply chain [original equipment manufacturers and suppliers], I actually feel that the labour force would increase.”

For now, the current 3K-based formula for balancing machines and mortals is delivering the goods for Maruti Suzuki. The assembly lines at the Manesar plant work at 98% efficiency, which means that for every 480-minute shift, the company can afford a stoppage of only around nine minutes. For the workmen at the factory, that can be quite a pace to maintain. For the robots, it’s probably just good vibrations.

This article first appeared on Quartz.

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