Racing with robots

In a race one contender is often called ''the one to beat.'' Is the new auto plant of Japan's third largest automaker, Mazda, the one to beat in today's race for productivity?

If this small but ambitious ''state of the art'' factory at Hofu reaches its reported goals, it would at least appear to be first off the mark.

It is supposed to produce 133.3 vehicles per worker per year - in contrast with last year's figures for Japanese factories of 45.7 to 56.9 vehicles per worker.

It's not done with blue smoke and mirrors, as an American presidential candidate used to say.

It's done with ready-made parts, automation, and ''smart'' computerized robots - one to every 11 or so employees.

What happens to no longer needed human beings? Mazda has previously found that attrition rather than plant closings is sufficient. And the employees who are left at Hofu have conditions made more pleasant by robots undertaking the messy jobs such as painting.

Now if we can find enough robots to drive the cars . . .

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