Advanced Automation or Alternative Production Design? A Reflection on the new Japanese Assembly Plants and the Alternative Approach of Volvo Uddevalla
For decades, increased levels of automation have been regarded as the logical and necessary solution to the dual problem of monotonous work and stagnating productivity in car assembly. Whereas the automation drive among Western auto producers in the 1980s largely failed, a new generation of plants in the Japanese industry in the early 1990s promised to be more successful. In this chapter, it is argued that, even in Japan, automated assembly has proven to be highly dependent on full capacity utilization and hence an excessively costly way of improving human working conditions. The Japanese high-tech approach is confronted with the different approach of the Volvo Uddevalla plant, and its deliberately “low-tech” manual assembly system. The author demonstrates that this model was a particularly flexible way of assembling and delivering customized vehicles to individual customers. It is interesting to note that, during the past few years, there has been an “automation backlash” in most of the car industry and a return to more simple manual assembly systems. The radical parallelization and customer orientation of the Uddevalla system still constitute highly innovative features, however.
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