At Nissan Motors, a robot is more than just a number

When Hatsuo Sato joined Nissan Motor Company 17 years ago, he worked as a welder on the assembly line. Wielding a welding gun as frames moved down the line, he stretched or crouched or otherwise contorted himself to reach various welding points assigned to him.

Today Mr. Sato is a foreman in an almost entirely automated welding line. He has 12 men and 18 robots working for him.

The robots, made by Kawasaki under license from Unimation Inc. of the United States, start work when Sato and his men start. They take 10-minute breaks, along with the men, at 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. They get an hour off for lunch. And they have girls' names, like Mariko or Yoshiko. Some have pictures of famous movie stars pasted on them.

''When we first got the robots, they were called Machine No. 1 and Machine No. 2 and so forth,'' Sato said. ''But the men decided that was too steel-cold, too impersonal. So we gave them real names, to bring a little warmth into the workshop.''

The slim, athletic Mr. Sato plays tennis and golf and goes skiing during his winter holidays. He intends to stay with Nissan until retirement at age 60, and possibly open a ski lodge thereafter. ''But this is just a dream,'' he says.

Sato's father works in a shop making Japanese cakes in Yokohama. Sato himself loved cars, and when he was 15 took the exams for Nissan technical high school, also in Yokohama. He was one of four pupils accepted by Nissan from his junior high school.

On graduation he was overjoyed to find that he had been accepted as a worker in Nissan's new plant in Zama, a 40-minute drive from Yokohama. His monthly salary was 30,000 yen, then about $83.

Today Sato makes 300,000 yen per month, plus a yearly bonus of 1.4 million yen. That means an annual salary of 5 million yen (or $20,000).

The robots were installed five years ago, but according to Mr. Sato they have not displaced any workers. ''Our plant has been growing continuously, ever since I arrived,'' he says. ''I feel absolutely no threat from the robots. They have eased our work by freeing us from unnatural or difficult positions and movements. Each robot does the work of 11/2 men.''

When the robots arrived, Sato and his fellow workers were given three months' training in how to use them. ''I felt a real sense of pride and accomplishment when I was able by myself to get a whole line of robots to work,'' he recalls.

He feels his work has become more interesting and challenging since the robots arrived. ''We've been taught how to program the robots, and if anything goes wrong we can always call on the maintenance men for help. In fact, they have taught us some of the simpler things to do in maintenance.''

The robots stop work when the men stop, because there are a few welding points that only the workers can do, and the assembly line is paced by human speed instead of that of the tireless robots. The rest breaks and lunch breaks also give the maintenance crews, who work three shifts, a chance to inspect and overhaul machinery.

''But the robots are generally quite trouble-free,'' Sato said. ''They go through major overhauls once a year, and we are told they will last at least eight years before having to be replaced.''

Mr. Sato has been surprised and encouraged by the attitude of youngsters entering the company. (This year 300 new employees were brought aboard at the Zama plant. The total work force at the plant, which turns out about 35,000 cars a year, is 6,200, including administrative and salespeople.)

''The new workers are a lot more serious than those of my generation,'' Sato said. One reason, he believes, is that workers of his generation joined during a period of high, continuous economic growth, both for the company and for Japan, while today's youngsters are entering the work force during a time of low growth and uncertainty about the future.

''I used to take a day off whenever I felt like it, sometimes without telling my foreman in advance,'' he noted. ''Today's kids always tell me before they take a day off.''

Nissan introduced the 40-hour, five-day work week in 1967, two years after Sato joined. Employees are entitled to 14 days of paid leave per year, plus 10 days in the summer and seven days in the winter when the entire factory shuts down. Sato likes to take long winter weekends for his skiing, but he has trouble using up all the holiday time entitled to him. So do most employees. One of the administrative officers at the Zama plant said that most workers wind up taking only about about 70 percent of their leave time.

How about saving your leave time, as some employees do, for up to two years, and take a long holiday in Europe or the US?

''I'd love to do that,'' Mr. Sato said. ''But Japanese society is organized in such a way that we really can't do that kind of thing. I wouldn't feel right being away from my responsibilities for such a long time.''

As a foreman, Sato listens and tries to settle workers' grievances. If the trouble is personal, he will talk the matter out with the employee. If it is over work, and goes beyond his responsibilities, he goes to his superior and sometimes to the union.

He tries to divide his leisure time between friends at work and family friends. During the week he may golf with fellow workers. The weekend, however, is for the family.

Nissan is Japan's second-largest automaker (total sales $13 billion last fiscal year). Sato feels a certain sense of security in working for a car company so large and well established. At the same time, he knows that the Japanese economy and indeed the world economy are going through difficult times.

''I do get the feeling, from time to time,'' he said, ''that all of us are going to have to do our darndest to build the best car we know how, otherwise the economy may not survive.''

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