Charlie Chaplin Lives

In Modern Times, a film made in 1936 in the silent film era, Charlie Chaplin created an iconic image. The industrial worker on the assembly line with two spanners in his hand. Through the day, he did the mind-numbingly monotonous job of tightening bolts on the line that stretched to infinity. 75 years later, with all the progress that has been made in manufacturing, you would think that a lot has changed. Sure, we have very impressive robots doing the heavy lifting, but for the intricate job of fitting small bolts into inaccessible areas and threading wires or locking unevenly shaped parts into a complex jigsaw, it still requires humans to perform at insanely high-efficiency levels. This article from ‘The Hindu’ reveals that a complete car rolls off the assembly line at Maruti Suzuki’s plant at Manesar every 50 seconds and to improve efficiency, they proposed a trimming to 48 seconds – 2 seconds means hundreds of more cars every day. To keep up the speed, workers get two 7.5 minute breaks for tea and a 30-minute break for lunch. The pressure is unrelenting.

“When I first began working for Maruti, assembly lines used to run right through my dreams,” said a worker with a laugh, “These days I suppose I’m so tired that I don’t get dreams anymore.”

The assembly line is a marvel of planning and execution. When we hear figures of over 1000 cars per day, we aren’t overly impressed. But to fit thousands of parts in the course of every single minute and then have the car perform flawlessly on the roads for years is a testament to our ability to mass produce complex machines. Our mechanical systems have come a long way. But our human resource monitoring systems are still tragically behind. They cannot combine efficiency with compassion.

No one wants to go back to the days of the Ambassador and Premier Padmini. Badly built and badly finished but with waiting periods that stretched for years. Even in 1995, you still had to wrap a plastic bag around the condenser of the Padmini to ensure that the car would not stop every time you drove through a puddle in the rains!

So, here’s the cycle. Everyone would like weekend trips with the family to scenic places. They want cars that deliver incredible fuel efficiency and style. And they want this at an affordable cost. Car manufacturing companies have no option but to trim wherever possible without affecting quality. They go over their complex spreadsheets and logistics reports, looking for the tiniest amount of flab. The point is, every company manufacturing a part that goes into the car wants to turn in a profit. No one is in business for charity. The only way out is to keep increasing production and sales to reduce the overall cost per car. But for the worker on the line, these are irrelevant facts. They only know that the management is now asking for an unreasonable 48 seconds per car. And that is intolerable.

We know the breaking points for machines far better than the ones for humans. And there lies the problem – humans cannot be calibrated and programmed to deliver the way machines do.