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The Toyodas

Kariya, Japan, February 1927. Toyoda Automatic Loom Works held a workshop for textile engineers to showcase the company's new loom. First the visitors saw how Toyoda looms were manufactured with high precision tools, and then they were taken on a tour of the experimental spinning and weaving facility where 520 of the Toyoda looms were in operation. The looms were a wonder to behold; they ran at a blazingly fast 240 picks per minute and were operated by only 20 weavers. Anticipating a law abolishing nighttime labor, the machines were fully automatic and could run unattended all night. When a shuttle flying across the loom was just about out of thread, a new shuttle replaced it in a smooth, reliable exchange. If even one of the hundreds of warp threads broke or the weft thread ran out, the loom immediately stopped and signaled a weaver to fix the problem.

If you want to understand the Toyota1 Production System, it is important to appreciate just how difficult it was to develop and manufacture the "perfect loom." Sakichi Toyoda built his first power loom in 1896 and invented an automated shuttle changing device in 1903. A test was set up to compare 50 Toyoda shuttle changing looms with a similar number of simple power looms from Europe. The results were disappointing. These early Toyoda looms were complex, low precision machines that were balky and difficult to maintain.

Sakichi Toyoda recruited technically competent employees and hired an American engineer, Charles A. Francis, to bring the American system of manufacture to his company. Francis redesigned the manufacturing equipment and built a machine tool shop to produce it. He developed standard specifications, produced standardized gauges and jigs, and reorganized the manufacturing line. At the same time, Sakichi Toyoda designed wider all-iron looms, and by 1909 he had patented a superior automated shuttle-change mechanism. Over the next decade, as war distracted Europe and America, looms designed by Sakichi Toyoda sold very well.

Although Sakichi Toyoda readily adopted high precision interchangeable parts, the loom manufacturing business had no room for interchangeable people. Automatic looms are complex, high precision machines, very sensitive to changes in materials and a challenge to keep running smoothly. Thus, highly skilled weavers were needed to set up and keep 25 or 30 machines running at once. If running a loom required skill, the design and manufacture of automated looms was even more demanding. Sakichi Toyoda had a reputation for hiring some of the most capable engineers being trained at Japanese universities. He kept his development team intact even as he started new companies, and he depended on them to carry on research in loom design and manufacture.

In 1921 Sakichi Toyoda's son Kiichiro joined his father's company and focused on advancing loom automation. In 1924 they jointly filed a patent for an improved automatic shuttle-change mechanism. The research team also developed methods to detect problems and stop the loom, so that looms could run unattended at night. Kiichiro Toyoda oversaw the building and start-up of a factory to produce the new looms, and set up 520 of them in the Toyoda experimental weaving factory. After he proudly showed off these "perfect looms," orders for the automated looms poured in. Kiichiro used the profits to start up an automotive business. He toured Detroit and spent years learning how to build engines. Toyota's first production car hit the market in 1936, but manufacturing was soon interrupted by war.

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