Talking Shop at the Toyota Factory

Reading Time: 7 minutes

A few weeks ago, Toyota invited me to join a group of bloggers for a tour of TMMI, its Indiana assembly plant. With three kids of my own, an interest in technology, environmental issues and the GeekDad reader demographics I suppose the invitation made sense. My family also drives a Mazda MPV (minivan) and Nissan Pathfinder (SUV), so TMMI’s product mix of Sienna, Highlander and Sequoia was a good match too. I turned down the plane ticket, choosing instead to drive from London, Ontario to Princeton, Indiana, a 1240 mile round trip, but one that passed through several American cities I’ve never seen (notably Louisville) and at the height of the autumn tree colors. Once the babysitting arrangements were looked after, the decision to drive 24 hours or so round trip to get a first hand look at how Toyota builds vehicles was a no-brainer.

As I pulled off I-64W, I was immediately struck by how busy the area surrounding the plant became. Heavy construction traffic, lots of Toyotas (naturally), new homes under construction and a massive new high school being built that looked like Lego from a distance thanks to the neon green panels that I assume are insulation. I don’t know how much of this development is attributable to the factory, but with four thousand employees I have to think there’s some relationship.

A team from Toyota and its public relations firm assembled the bloggers the morning after I arrived. I was significantly outnumbered, with one other male in the group (Hi, Howard!) and the majority composed of what were frequently referred to as “mommy bloggers.” We boarded vans and headed out to TMMI. When we arrived, the enormity of what we were about to see hit me. The plant is seriously huge, some 4 millions square feet, covering an area equivalent to 70 football fields (that’s roughly 64 Canadian football fields for those keeping count). And that doesn’t include the outlying buildings, marshaling yard and test track area.

Tundra hanging from the ceiling at TMMI (photo by Brad Moon)

We started off in the visitors center, where they were displaying the newest Sienna minivan. It was a sweet ride as far as minivans go and the model there included safety features like dynamic radar cruise control, more airbags than I could keep track of (including a driver’s knee bag), green options like a 4 cylinder engine and plain cool things like a dual moon roof and middle row passenger seats that not only tilted back, but also featured pop up foot rests. I really liked those middle row seats, but it quickly dawned on my that it would be the kids who enjoyed the sit back, theater experience, not me, so I lost interest. Besides, there was a disassembled, shiny red truck hanging from the ceiling… Kind of like those iPod teardown features with all the parts laid out, only with far more pieces, they’re significantly heavier and they’re all hanging by wires from the ceiling.

The plant tour, after the break.

For the tour of the plant itself, we were required to turn in our cameras and cell phones -no opportunity to sign a “no photos” waiver or anything, all the electronics went into locked storage. Toyota is serious about security. After watching an introductory piece (including the Sienna “Swagger Wagon” video you’ve all seen on YouTube), we donned protective glasses and an earpiece, boarded trams (seriously, the place is just way too big to be walking around) and headed off for the production floor.

Production robot at TMMI (Photo by Toyota)

I’ve been in factories before, but nothing that compares to TMMI. It defies description, but I’ll take a crack at it. Immensity, efficiency, controlled chaos, quality and cleanliness were overriding themes. There is simply so much going on that it’s impossible to take it all in and the scale is hard to fathom. Our guide mentioned one massive press that applies 4,600 tons of force and required a 14 foot deep concrete foundation. Electric vehicles are zooming around everywhere with parts, including autonomous robotic vehicles in some areas. At one point I actually saw people peddling on large three-wheeled bikes. The robots are something else. The big ones were referred to by our guide as Godzillas and these monsters pick up and twirl around full Sequoia truck frames. Hundreds of smaller, more agile robots are responsible for thousands of spot welds, although humans still do some of the welding and a line of team members (don’t call them “workers”) inspects and perfects each of those robotic welds. Humans do most of the assembly work, although the equipment they use is also impressive. Only a three hour supply of parts is kept on hand -just in time taken to the extreme- and it’s amazing to watch as each vehicle rolls along the line and is outfitted according to its specific order sheet. The required parts arrive in the correct sequence, so there’s no hunting around to find the right stereo or seats for a vehicle; they arrive in the correct sequence, synchronized with the arrival of the vehicle. Despite all of this, the place was spotless and there were constant reminders about how seriously the company takes quality. Vehicles are inspected at multiple stages, and under the harshest, most revealing lights. A percentage are driven to the test track area (which we also visited) and run through a rigorous series of tests designed to catch any manufacturing defects. Signs and tallies are posted everywhere, stressing the importance of quality control.

After the production tour, we had a Q&A session with TMMI president Norm Bafunno as well as other senior TMMI staff. Among the points they hit were Toyota’s environmental commitment. They post the plant’s utility bill every day so staff can see what power is costing and track the impact of conservation programs, the plant has generated zero landfill since 2005 and is working on solar, wind turbine and geothermal energy projects, afforestation projects are being undertaken to return chunks of the plant property back to native Indiana woodlands and they equipped 2,200 sixth grade students with water testing kits. At one point, someone finally brought up the elephant in the room, the quality issues and recalls that have dogged Toyota for the past several years. Really, that’s what we were there to help address and we realized that. To his credit Bafunno didn’t duck the topic, although he referred to it as Toyota’s “unprecedented 12 months of media coverage,” which is a bit of an understatement. He emphasized the steps Toyota has been taking to address the issues, including forming safety advisory teams and sending technicians to investigate customer complaints in person, as well as making the most of in-person visits to speak to customers in hope of further improving their product. When given the opportunity to pass some of the blame over to suppliers (as in “have outside suppliers been responsible for some for the quality issues?”) he took the high road and said Toyota takes full responsibility for the design of faulty components for which some parts may have been outsourced.

Electric powered emergency vehicles at TMMI (photo by Toyota)

I had a few unusual takeaways from the tour. When we first rolled into the plant on the trams, I thought that maybe someone had spiked my coffee. I was hearing music everywhere, but not good music. A cross between a calliope and an old 8-bit synthesizer with some recorder thrown in. All playing different songs. I finally asked and it turns out that each piece of equipment plays a different tune when it requires attention. Apparently, people learn to distinguish what’s going on by picking out the tunes. I couldn’t work there without it ruining music for me forever. We passed a few signs listing mutilation counts. Given the Godzilla robots and 4,600 ton presses, this brought some pretty horrific imagery to mind, but it turns out that “mutilation” is the term Toyota uses for damage to a vehicle. Metal belt buckles and even hard plastic shirt buttons aren’t allowed. All jewelery is covered to prevent scratches- heck, even Norm Bafunno was wearing a green cloth band over his wedding ring when he spoke to us. And in what I found to be a very anachronistic touch, all team members can stop the assembly line at any time if they spot an issue with a vehicle, but they do so by pulling a string that hangs over every work station. A real, old fashioned length of twine, knotted in places and strung overhead. Apparently they’re testing a Bluetooth system, but for now the kill switch would probably look at home in one of Henry Ford’s factories circa the 1920s.

At the end of the day and after spending only hours at one production facility, am I qualified to say that Toyota has put their problems behind them? Of course not. But what I can say is that I came away impressed with the state of the art facilities where the company builds its products, the pride in workmanship I saw repeatedly throughout the tour, the emphasis that has been put on quality control and the measures the company has taken to correct any flaws in their system. It may not be perfect, but it looks pretty good. They’re making significant efforts to be environmentally responsible and supporting the local community, both also good things. If TMMI needs some Canadian-style northern climate testing done on one of its vehicles, never mind the Sienna though, I’ll volunteer to test a Sequoia, please.

Note: Toyota provided travel and accommodations for GeekDad.

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