The World's Largest Car Company Reinvents Itself
No, it wasn’t just the U.S. to Japan jet lag that had us confused.
We’re deep within the bowels of Toyota‘s Honsha plant (its original factory opened in 1938), staring at a row of tired-looking, gray-green assembly line machines. They’re nicked and scratched, and the paint around their knobs is finger-worn into thin halos. Methodically, a man moves a simple cart along them carrying a jumble of small parts that, if assembled just so, will become a transmission for a small HiAce van.
We step back to make room for the cart. He places a painted metal card drilled with a particular pattern of holes into a slot and pulls a lever. If it’s the right card, the right color pins with the same pattern will cleanly penetrate the holes and dispense the correct nut to be fastened next. He can’t make a mistake.
The guy next to me asks, “Is this a real assembly line?” I think so, but I make a twisted confused face as I’m not completely sure.
Turns out, it is — Toyota famously doesn’t waste anything. But its actual purpose is startling.
“The machines were in one of our old factories that was being torn down in Brazil,” says Mitsuru Kawai, a man who’s worked here for 52 years, rising from the factory floor to be an executive vice president, and now one of the few left who personally witnessed Taiichi Ohno’s creation of the fabled Toyota Production System. “We recovered them and brought them back.” Why would giant Toyota go through so much trouble to reconstruct an archaic assembly line?
“Our workers are forgetting how Toyota builds cars,” he replies, with a stone serious look on his face. “They push buttons and watch robots but don’t understand the process — the philosophy. This teaches them.” Called a Basic Line, ones like it will eventually be installed in Toyota factories around the world, and all future assembly line workers will begin their careers doing exactly what that guy with the cart is doing. In my notebook, I slowly draw an exclamation point. Vertical line, dot below.
It wasn’t the only one I drew during our three-day dash from Tokyo to Nagoya to Toyota City — two factories, three hotels in three nights — punctuated by drooling comatose naps while hurling along in the 200-mph Shinkansen bullet train.
It’s one thing to have coffee with a pal who’s reminiscing about his past and rethinking his future. It’s another to be sitting across from one of the largest companies in the world as it spills it guts. At the end I wanted to give them a hug. It’ll be all right. Really.
What triggered this midlife crisis appears to have been the 2008 financial collapse (and the growing rate of recalls that’s engulfing the entire industry). Even Toyota’s legendary just-in-time, Edwards Deming-influenced manufacturing process — celebrated for its efficiency and flexibility (eight different cars are built on the same assembly line)—roared out of control amid the car market’s sudden gyrations. Like that, it transformed from world-class industrial model to a monster they couldn’t throttle, bleeding away a fortune as the months passed. The free fall seems to have horrified them to the marrow.
So Toyota went quiet for a while, Zen-like, reimagining itself. From retracing how it got here — hence the Basic Line — to trashing its current, gold-plated game plan and replacing it with sort of a Kaizen (“continuous change for the better”) on steroids, with a fundamental rethink of its vehicle line architectures, its assembly lines — even the structures they’ll build them in.
What’s the problem, you ask? Here’s one: Worldwide, Toyota now builds roughly 100 different platform variants and 800 engine flavors. Eight freaking hundred. There’s no way in hell to continuously develop all of them rapidly. So under the goofy umbrella slogan of “Building Ever-Better Cars,” Toyota intends to go simple, and you’ll directly encounter it later this year in the fourth-generation Prius. But you probably won’t notice it.
Beneath the skin, though, TNGA — Toyota New Global Architecture — will be cutting its costs by about 20 percent. A modular scheme akin to Volkswagen’s MQB strategy (which Wolfsburg has been struggling with), TNGA is so forehead-slap obvious you wonder where it’s been all this time. Here’s a glimpse of how it works:
All the key interior components — steering wheels, shifters, pedals (and air bags) — will be dictated by five standardized seat heights. Select a seat height and the car’s mission (is it a sedan or a crossover, for instance) and this leads to a highly pruned decision tree of accompanying components (say, four shifters or five seat frames). Once disguised by unique interiors, this massive simplification becomes invisible. Now project that thinking to everything else in the car. Meanwhile, Toyota is targeting significant increases in chassis stiffness (30 to 65 percent), lower centers of gravity for better handling, and intertwined with that, lower cowls for better outward vision.
However, I actually draw even more exclamation points when they explain the reimagined factories that will build them. It skips from “Just in Time” to “Right Now” with flexibility and responsiveness that’s simply dazzling.
For instance, as orders arrive from around the world, in real time the correct mold for a front fascia will be robotically swapped in the press (be it for a RAV4 to a Corolla or whatever) and formed (the plastic rushed through the mold by pressurized air behind it). When it pops out it’s immediately painted the color that was requested. Immediately. The next bumper and color will probably be completely different. It’s “One-by-One” production, instead of the usual production lots of, say, 50 cars of a certain color. Yes, I said one-by-one.
Moreover, those paint booths (as well as almost all the machinery) will be dramatically more compact and modular, and combined with the elimination of overhead conveyors, they allow Toyota’s future factories to be both smaller and entirely single story. This saves construction costs and heating and cooling bills (and consequently, CO2). But also opens a bigger role for … old-fashioned humans, who can now walk around and get to everything. I literally lean back in shock as we are shown an example of how it’s faster for a guy guiding a powered arm to place a seat in a car than it is for a robot to do it. More importantly, the guy doesn’t break down, halting the assembly line — which is another reason all the machinery will be at ground level. If anything robotic goes wacko, workers can simply go around the weak link (a maze of overhead machinery rules that out); we were even shown a time-lapse video of men changing a line itself (by hand) as they removed and inserted modular stations. It’s all refreshingly counterintuitive. The revenge of the human! It’s calculated that these “simple, slim, and speedy” Ever-Better Plants will drop factory investment by a whopping 40 percent, a quarter of that being plowed back into product development, another quarter into “benefits to the workers and surrounding communities” (an example being a bank of ex-Prius battery packs for load-leveling a solar panel array). The rest of that saved cash? My bet is this is how you budget in ever more sensors, infomatics, and driving-aid features. Something has to give to make part-time (and eventually fully) autonomous cars affordable. (It also gives some leeway for a variety of new manufacturing tricks Toyota hesitantly demonstrates, including mirror-quality robotic paint polishing, lightning-fast laser screw welding, dazzlingly complex painting schemes, and carbon-fiber panels.)
As we pull away in the bus, our PR host remarks on how many of the Japanese factory personnel are lined up and bowing as we thread our way out of the factory. The number reflects the importance of the occasion, and he’d never seen so many. Toyota’s greatest pride is its mastery of mass car-building. And judging by that row, they’re really proud right now.