Inside Toyota Motor's oldest plant, there is a corner where humans have taken over from robots in thwacking glowing lumps of metal into crankshafts. This is Mr Mitsuru Kawai's vision of the future.
"We need to become more solid and get back to basics, to sharpen our manual skills and further develop them," said Mr Kawai, a half-century-long company veteran tapped by company president Akio Toyoda to promote craftsmanship at Toyota's plants.
"When I was a novice, experienced masters used to be called gods, and they could make anything." These gods, or Kami-sama, are making a comeback.
At Toyota, the company that long set the pace for manufacturing prowess in the auto industry, the next step forward is counter-intuitive in an age of automation: Humans are taking the place of machines in plants across Japan so workers can develop new skills and figure out ways to improve production lines and car-building.
"Toyota views their people who work in a plant like this as craftsmen who need to continue to refine their art and skill level," said Mr Jeff Liker, who has written eight books on Toyota. "In almost every company you would visit, the workers' jobs are to feed parts into a machine and call somebody for help when it breaks down."
The return of the Kami-sama is emblematic of how Mr Toyoda, 57, is remaking the company founded by his grandfather to tilt priorities back towards quality and efficiency from a growth mentality.
The effort also comes as the world's largest carmaker shifts to manufacturing platforms that could cut costs by 30 percent while maintaining annual production of three million vehicles in Japan.
Learning how to make car parts from scratch gives younger workers insights they otherwise wouldn't get from picking parts from bins and conveyor belts, or pressing buttons on machines. At about 100 manual-intensive workspaces introduced over the last three years across Toyota's factories in Japan, these lessons can be applied to reprogramme machines to cut down on waste and improve processes, Mr Kawai said.
Toyota has eliminated about 10 percent of material-related waste from building crankshafts at Honsha. Mr Kawai said the aim is to apply those savings to the next-generation Prius hybrid. He credits manual labour for helping workers at Honsha also improve production of axle beams and cut the costs of making chassis parts.
Though Mr Kawai doesn't envision the day his employer will rid itself of robots - 760 of them take part in 96 percent of the production process at its Motomachi plant in Japan - he has introduced multiple lines dedicated to manual labour in each of Toyota's factories in its home country, he said.
A year after the failure of Lehman Brothers in 2008 sent US car demand tumbling, Toyota began recalling more than 10 million vehicles to fix problems linked to unintended acceleration, damaging its reputation for quality.
In the aftermath of the crisis, Mr Toyoda paused announcing new plants even as rivals GM and Volkswagen push for further new capacity.
In the years leading up to the recalls, Mr Kawai had been increasingly concerned Toyota was growing too fast, he said. "To be the master of the machine, you have to have the knowledge and the skills to teach the machine."
-Photo by Bloomberg