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The machine that changed the world

The machine that changed the world

I was discussing issues around production efficiency and flexibility recently with someone new to the automotive sector, and suggested they should read “The machine that changed the world” by Jones and Womack published in 1990[1]. And I did a quick Google search on my phone so they could see more information on the book, which also threw up a 1990s TV documentary of the evolution of the computer[2]which I had never heard of. This got me thinking, how long will the car be the machine that changes the world?

To anyone not familiar with the Womack and Jones book, “The machine that changed the world” detailed a wide benchmarking of production plants across the world undertaken by the International Motor Vehicle Programme (IMVP), a five year and fourteen country research project that was the inspiration for the initial foundation of ICDP, taking the same transformational thinking into distribution.[3] The title of the book was therefore intended to allude to both the innovation within the Japanese production systems and the automobile itself.  Their analysis of the consumer pull of widespread adoption of the motor car is undeniably correct, self-evident in the growth of automobile sales in markets across rapidly growing economies such as China.

Whilst travelling abroad for a couple of discussions recently, it was decided the day before to change the location of one particular meeting. No problem, I said. The meeting was scheduled from one city to a location outside another city some distance away. My first thought was to hire a car, so I took out my Sony Ericsson Android phone and looked up the address using Google maps. Mmm, I thought, there’s a train station near where I want to go. So I looked up the trains travelling to that destination, and I found a next train that I could catch as estimated by the walk directions on Google maps. It was an easy next step to use Google again to look for a taxi company at the destination station and the search displayed touch buttons easy to use phone numbers, and I was able to immediately book a car to my destination with a quick call. All this took less than two minutes, a process so easy and uncomplicated that you couldn’t really call it ‘travel planning’. Now imagine myself trying to do the same thing twenty years ago. You may well have concluded that I should just drive and get a map book to navigate my way there.

Other examples suggest where we are going. The “mOmO” project, an EU funded research programme into car sharing, has developed a Car-Sharing Markup Language (CSL) designed for smartphone apps. This aims to improve the scale benefits of car sharing clubs through creating wider networks, via a simple set of open source protocols much like the HTML or XML that powers the internet[4]. It’s likely that very soon route planning will allow even easier comparisons of routes, prices, timing and convenience. Once travellers can compare end to end routes and book them with their phone, does that not make the phone the most empowering device for personal mobility? Or whatever smartphones become, given the Google ‘goggles’ and other mobile communication technology on the near horizon. The car industry may have to adjust to the car being part of the delivery logistics of mobility rather than the core component. On the other hand, telematics is bringing smartphone connectivity into the architecture of the car. However, the easy availability of information is the real game changer, not the specific device. The integration of information services may well make the global internet of things the machine that changes personal mobility in the 21stcentury.

Image: Google

[1] Womack, J., Jones, D.T. and Roos, D. (1990) The Machine That Changed the World, New York: Harper Collins

[2] The Machine that changed the world, 1992, Dir. Nancy Linde, produced by WGBH Boston/BBC.

[3] The study concluded that Japanese methodological gains in production efficiency would continue to be employed in production plants across the world. This book was very influential at the time in challenging the disconnection of car production from real market demand, even if some of the key lessons learnt by the study continue to be misunderstood such as the limited role of automatic (‘kanban’) replenishment in car assembly when people talk about pull-based production. 


Written by Ben Waller

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