How could this have been possible?

1 January 2009

A dismal political economy has not overwhelmed Nippon’s engineers

Whatever happened to JIT, or ‘just-in-time’ production engineering?* This once-revolutionary set of principles was of American parentage but was neglected at home and elsewhere until the Japanese applied it and shook up manufacturing worldwide. In those mid-twentieth-century times JIT was the subject of countless management conferences and publications. Its prior uptake by the Japanese played an important part in lifting their country to the heights of the world’s most powerful economies. Japan retains this eminence despite some politico-economic floundering on the way and, in more recent years, the rise of China, India and other thrusting nations.

An unrecognised warning lurked in those ‘politico-economic flounderings’. Japan found itself fighting, not the inflation that it and other countries had been wary of, but deflation. Prices fell. The central bank’s interest rates nudged zero. Then, when recovery began to look possible, the international financial crisis flared up and deflation was perceived to join its other general threats. Leading financial authorities seem now to dread an onset of deflation even more than one of inflation.

However, a dismal political economy has not overwhelmed Nippon’s engineers. A star in the Japanese firmament has been Toyota, long a global leader in the automotive industry and ambitious beyond it. I am astonished to learn that this accomplished corporation, which has led the field with its hybrid motor-car,** the Prius (cf MPS July 2008 p9, February 2005 p9 and July 2004, p39), has been unable to keep up with booming demand because of a bottleneck in production: a bottleneck, it must be said, of the sort that JIT should have abolished.

Holding back output has been the supplier of a principal component. By the canons of JIT, and related management teachings, such a failing should have been eliminated by close co-operation between Toyota and its supplier. The supplier is a joint venture of Toyota and Matsushita Electric. The vital component is the battery.

I cannot help wondering whether the stories of Toyota’s production problem in this case have been exaggerated owing to jealousy and Schadenfreude. Nor can I help reflecting that there may have been a touch of hubris on the part of Toyota. However, I shall be rather disappointed if, by the time you read this, the corporation has not got everything right again: although, perhaps, just this time, just not quite in time: but not (in total outcome) too late.

Or this?

All-electrically-powered cars competed with heat-engined cars during the birth pangs of automobilism but were beaten in by far the greater part of the marketplace. The modern hybrid car has brought at least part-time battery power into engagement with roadwheels more successfully than has any purely electrochemically energised predecessor, owing to ever profounder environmental considerations. Those same deep influences are now reviving hopes for the long-moribund electrochemically powered car.

Japanese motorists will be the first to be offered new products of this kind by big manufacturers, thanks to backing from their country’s government and electrical utilities. An example of the latter is the Tokyo Electric Power Co, TEPCO. TEPCO is reported to have devised charging equipment that will put a small battery-powered car back on the road for 40 km after a five-minute stop at a ‘refilling’ (i.e. recharging) station.

The threat to combustion-engined orthodoxy, however, has been flourished in many parts of the roadwheel borne world. In the USA Ford Motor Co presses ahead with hybrid and battery vehicles for offer on the market in a few years’ time and General Motors spotlights a plug-in hybrid for launch in late 2010. The latter is being styled the Volt, I suppose in order to suggest the design’s potential difference but also to promise real electromotive force for motorists’ disposal. Punning pd and emf in this way may earn me grins or groans, warns a scientist colleague, but it is an abuse of the physics. Mea culpa! Together with other Detroit giants GM has been seeking US government aid to deal with money shortages worsened by the pandemic financial crisis. Politicking over this attempt has been fierce and the carmakers’ unhumble struggles with assorted adversaries have been fascinating a worldwide audience.

But hard times have befallen the once-mighty US manufacturers across most of the automobile spectrum – GM is alleged in the business press to have ‘lost ground to Toyota and other foreign carmakers’ on its own to the tune of many billions of dollars over the last three years. GM’s plight may seem the more striking to those who remember how, not very long ago, ‘What is good for General Motors’ was proclaimed to be ‘what is good for America’.***

But a more international – even global – kind of good is becomng possible nowadays. It is the prospect of ramifying electrification for road transport: not a spread pushed as far as technically feasible, of course, but one taken as far as is beneficial or optimal. Hybrid technology can be a great enabler.

I like the example of certain streets in China and Japan. Their traffic bustles with growing numbers of battery-powered bicycles. Over twenty million of these machines were sold in China and Japan during 2006.

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