In Part I, the Toyota Times team covered the Woven City groundbreaking ceremony and delved into the history of the Higashi-Fuji Plant that served as its backdrop. There, Editor-in-Chief Kagawa instructed Morita to find out more about the future of Toyota.
With this mission, the new reporter visited Woven Planet in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, where he discovered Toyota’s unique approach to exploring the future.
By the end of 2020, this had been TRI-AD (Toyota Research Institute - Advanced Development), a company engaged in developing and implementing automated driving technology. The Editor-in-Chief himself visited the office in November 2019 to report on Toyota’s latest advances in automated driving.
In July 2020, TRI-AD announced its transition to a new structure in which a holding company, Woven Planet Holdings, would oversee two operating companies – Woven Core, involved mainly in automated driving technology, and Woven Alpha, which is in charge of Woven City and other new business areas at Toyota.
Adding Woven Capital to the organization, the companies began operating under a new arrangement in January 2021. What was the reason behind this restructuring and the creation of the Woven Planet Group? CEO James Kuffner explains.
With the Woven City project now as one of our responsibilities for TRI-AD, we felt it was the right time to expand our operations and truly become a company that’s aimed at producing happiness for all.
In other words, the Woven Planet Group goes beyond automated driving – it is a new structure tasked with forging Toyota’s future. More than that, it may also shape the future of the entire world. This focus on the planet, rather than just Toyota, can be found in its very name.
So what exactly goes on inside the company? For his report, Morita was shown around by CEO Kuffner and Daisuke Toyoda, the company’s Senior Vice President.
Developing software before hardware
The office floor is painted with road markings, which not only creates a Silicon Valley-style atmosphere, but is also intended to assist the Woven City Management team. Perhaps autonomous robots will use them to get around?
Morita’s eye was drawn to an interior feature that serves as a partition, arranged like a zen garden. This idea was the work of Chika Harata, one of the staff involved in setting up the Woven Planet offices, and was made using actual stones brought over from the Higashi-Fuji Plant.
Morita used this chance to ask CEO Kuffner a candid question. Until now, Toyota has focused on producing quality cars around the world. In that sense, Woven Planet’s work seems far removed from Toyota’s traditional business. What exactly are you trying to achieve?
Kuffner explains that, in order to provide greater value for customers in the future, Toyota needs both good hardware and good software. Toyota has a long history of mass-producing reliable, high-quality hardware, but building software requires entirely different skills. Woven Planet’s mission is to offer better products by bringing these two elements together.
The key to achieving this is ‘software first’, an approach that involves developing software before hardware. Kuffner emphasizes that this creates two advantages.
The first is reusability. Toyota makes hundreds of vehicles and kinds of mobility, so it’s not a good idea to create software just for one type. Instead, we need to create algorithms and services that we can deploy on many different types of vehicles and software that produces new values.
The second benefit is upgradeability of both hardware and software. Just as our smartphones can be upgraded with new applications, new software, or security fixes, connected mobility will also have the same potential.
Hardware development also greatly benefits from software. If we prepare a virtual environment with software before actually manufacturing something, we can conduct various experiments with simulations in advance.
For example, when designing a car, it would take a lot of time and money to actually prepare a prototype car and conduct various verifications. With software, however, many experiments can be simulated in a small amount of time. By creating the software first, we can dramatically speed up the development process.
As Kuffner explains, this same approach is being adopted for Woven City, the prototype city of the future. It involves building a ‘digital twin’ that duplicates every aspect of the real infrastructure in a virtual environment, creating a simulation of the entire city before it is constructed. So what exactly is being developed?
Today, Daisuke and his team will show you how they are using the Toyota Production System to help design Woven City.
Want kaizen? Build a genba
Toyoda began by showing a model of the entire Woven City. The phase 1 area where the groundbreaking ceremony was held makes up only a small part of the whole project. This first phase begins with logistics.
Further details were explained by Akira Yoshioka from the TPS Group at Toyota, and Morihiro Masada, Product Owner of Logistics at Woven Alpha. The Woven City logistics system that Masada described was remarkable.
All goods delivered to Woven City – parcels, newspapers, mails, etc. – will come through the logistics center. From there, an autonomous robot known as an S-Palette delivers them to ‘smart post’ mailboxes in front of each house. These robots can also collect household rubbish and outgoing packages, taking them back to the logistics center.
Even more astonishing, the S-Palette travels via underground areas set up specifically for logistics. In Woven City, goods move around unseen and are delivered right to your home.
In developing this logistics system, the team also applies the expertise of Toyota’s cherished Toyota Production System (TPS). One example of this is the decision to handle some processes manually instead of aiming for full automation from the outset.
Initially, the amount of goods being processed will be small, and the real needs of residents will not be clear. Automating everything by machine at this phase would make it difficult to make changes. Instead, using human workers offers greater flexibility for responding rapidly to changes.
To make the most of TPS’s potential, the team even built a genba (on-site), converting part of the office into a mock logistics center capable of reproducing actual on-site operations. A demonstration was provided by Shogo Momoshima from Toyota’s Sales Logistic IT KAIZEN Division.
Goods are unloaded from the truck onto shelves, then loaded onto an S-palette according to directions given by a dedicated smartphone app. The S-palette then automatically departs for delivery. Physically recreating this sequence of events facilitates kaizen.
Toyota’s kaizen process usually takes place at the genba, but Woven City doesn’t exist yet. So first we had to build the genba, which was conceived and hand-built by our kaizen-persons.
Digital tools for faster kaizen
Unlike cars, cities do not readily lend themselves to prototyping. That’s where a digital twin comes in. This involves making an exact digital reproduction of the space, which is then used to simulate various events that could occur in reality. Combining Toyota’s kaizen processes with a digital twin allows for more efficient development.
Nobuhisa Otsuki, Product Owner of the Digital-Twin Simulator, is engaged in digitally rendering the real world. By using the digital twin to vary the volume of goods and simulate congestions or delivery delays, he is able to uncover the causes and solutions to these problems.
Feeding these results back into the real world leads to kaizen. Combining the real and digital worlds in this way opens up greater scope for improvement.
The development of a city takes place over many years and many decades, even lifetimes. But with digital technology, we can compress that and do many iterations of improvement.
Toyota’s production system is based around continuous improvement, and we are hoping to apply those ideas with new digital tools to accelerate that development and learning so that we achieve a more helpful, beneficial society for the cities of the future much faster.
“We’d like to give you a sense of what the city will actually look like,” Toyoda announced, standing before a mysterious black door. On the other side lay Woven City, reproduced in a virtual space.
“You can enter the VR environment just like that, without wearing VR glasses,” explained Wataru Kaku, Lead of Digital Product at Woven Alpha. Unfortunately, this area was still off limits to cameras, so we can only wonder what Morita experienced in there.
It feels like I’m actually there… There are even other people. Oh, a robot just went by.
In this way we can test how it feels to have the robots move around you, things like that.
I didn’t know there was such a way to build a city.
Then, Toyoda took Morita to a room that was almost entirely empty. Wearing goggles with a built-in display, however, Morita could see the streets of Woven City stretching before his eyes. “Whoa.” He couldn’t contain his sense of wonder.
This VR-based approach is another development tool that takes advantage of software first. Not merely a solo experience in a digital Woven City, it also allows many people from around the world to assess the same things in the same environment.
For example, after constructing buildings based on the original design, the team discovered that they blocked too much sunlight. Such a problem would be difficult to fix if the actual buildings had been erected, but the digital environment makes remodeling easy.
Digital tools let engineers discover and fix issues before construction begins, explained Satoshi Okamoto, Lead of UX Communication Strategy, Woven City, and Matthew Doell, Universal Exports Head of UX Simulation.
What we are trying to do here is make something that is human-centered. It’s about the lifestyle. That’s why it’s extremely important for us to use these digital settings to see and instinctively assess how people live in those environments.
The team even went so far as to recreate the interior of a Woven City home inside their offices. A compact robot runs around the house, carrying packages that are delivered to the smart post at the front door.
“I think it will be very convenient for the elderly or other people who have trouble carrying heavy objects,” explains Kunihiro Iwamoto, Lead of Hardware.
The team is also working on a robot that moves along ceiling-mounted rails. One of the biggest difficulties is navigating a robot smoothly around a cluttered house; this idea solves the problem by utilizing the home’s least cluttered area – the ceiling.
At the same time, insists Lead of Robotics Yutaka Takaoka, “We don’t want to force anything onto customers just because we think it’s convenient”. He believes the right level of robot assistance depends on the individual.
The first step is to provide many options, and allow the user to choose. Through this process, the team finds out what people prefer. Woven City is ‘A Living Laboratory’ where this kind of trial-and-error can take place.
What that means is, in this phase you are exploring different approaches in order to demonstrate as many options as possible?
That’s right, and I see Woven City as a great opportunity to do just that.
Striving for a human-centered world
People like different things. That is why, as Toyoda emphasizes, simply creating a one-size-fits-all approach and saying ‘Here you go’ is not human-centered. He would like to see Woven City become a home for elderly residents and families with young children, along with entrepreneurs, artists, researchers, as they call “inventors” who create new value.
These inventors will also be expected to play a role in solving the problems that arise in daily life.
Even in Woven City, which offers a vast array of alternatives by fully embracing the power of digital technology, it is people who have the final say. No matter how rational an option may seem in simulation, it won’t be adopted unless people want it.
“In this way,” Toyoda explained passionately, “we want to create a place where every individual is satisfied 100 percent – or even 120 percent.”
Everything is connected
When Morita visited Higashi-Fuji for the groundbreaking ceremony, there were no buildings to be seen, and he was not convinced that much was really happening. Then he came to Nihonbashi. Inside the Woven Planet offices, Morita was astounded to find a working logistics facility, the reproduction of a home, and countless simulations.
In an office that is charging ahead into the future, there were also many reminders of how everything is interconnected, from the Higashi-Fuji Plant zen garden to the fusion of the Toyota Production System with a software first approach.
Personally, I can still vividly remember the sense of anticipation that I felt as a news presenter when reporting on President Toyoda’s CES announcement of the Woven City project. I’m thrilled to be able to cover it from the front lines like this, and I look forward to following the progress of Woven City.
For now, that’s all from here in Nihonbashi!
For Morita, Higashi-Fuji was a bridge connecting different places and people. Similarly, Editor-in-Chief Kagawa felt that people were at its core.
I'm sure there is a place here in Higashi-Fuji where Mr. Shirane’s tears and James’s smile weave into each other like a single Moebius loop. I’d love to witness that moment.
In particular, I want to see the tears of Mr. Shirane, who poured so much of his life into that Century, turn into a smile.