Taylor Made: Automating the loom
Sakichi Toyoda was born in Japan in 1867. After elementary school, he started studying carpentry from his dad, who was also a farmer. As he got older, Toyoda started looking for ways to contribute to society for the benefit of the people. He observed that most heavy machinery of the time was driven by steam, which required coal for fuel. He wanted to replace steam with some other driving force.
Toyoda started studying the hand looms that farm families in his area commonly used. Looms were and still are used to weave cloth from thread. The threads held in tension are called warp threads and the threads woven among them by the use of bobbins are called weft threads.
When Toyoda was 24, he invented a handloom that required one hand instead of two for operation. Automating more of the process increased efficiency and made the weave more even. He then focused on creating a power loom, the first of which was driven by steam (other iterations used an oil motor). These looms were not considered automatic, as they still required the operator to replace the weft thread when it ran out. Doing so required shutting off the machine, and Toyoda could see that there was potential to increase efficiency by decreasing the downtime this caused.
30 years after he went into business with his improved handloom, Toyoda completed the type G Toyoda automatic loom. The type G loom was his best iteration and state of the art for its time. By the time he produced the type G loom, Toyoda had created the company Toyoda Automatic Loom Works, Ltd.
One of Toyoda’s guiding principles for his company was that one should be observant and creative and try to stay ahead of the times. He is also credited with creating the concept of 5 whys, where you ask the question “Why?” in response to a problem, then ask “Why?” in response to the answer, repeating until the question has been asked five times. The goal of this method is to identify the root of the problem so that a permanent or long-term solution can be implemented.
In 1936, six years after Toyoda passed away, Toyoda’s son Kiichiro decided to start a car company. He wanted a name similar to, but still separate from, his dad’s company’s name and held a contest for logo suggestions. The winning design used “Toyota” instead of Toyoda- it was thought that the former had a better sound. Additionally, writing the letter “t” in katakana (a component of the Japanese writing system) required eight brush strokes, a lucky number in Japan. And so Toyota Motor Corporation was born. Sakichi Toyoda’s practice of implementing the principle of jikoda, meaning that the machine stops itself when a problem occurs, became a key part of Toyota’s production system.