Sanvada recently paid a visit to Toyota‘s headquarters in Aichi, central Japan. In fact, we visited the city of Toyota, which is named after the car company that dominates everything in that part of the country. We expected the Toyota factory to be efficient, but this was above and beyond.
If any reader ever get a chance to do the tour in the home of one of the world’s most famous automobile companies (which we highly recommend), they will first meet at the Toyota Kaikan Museum at Toyota’s sprawling headquarters before being taken to a factory for the tour.
Basically a suburb of the city, the headquarters are a complex of buildings where almost ten percent of the city’s total workforce is based. One of the major buildings is the Technical Center, where 10,000 engineers work on new models.
No photos, please
As we waited to be driven out to the factory, we had time to look around the museum and its shiny models, some of them halved so we could see a cross section of the inner workings.
There were also intermittent performances from a Toyota Partner Robot, which played the violin to a smiling crowd who were unsure whether or not to applaud at the end (tentatively, we did).
We were then driven to one of several plants in the area, passing some of the others which were in obscure buildings surrounded by fields, looking unassuming despite producing cars that are shipped all over the world.
When we arrived at the Takaoka plant, where Auris, Harrier, Prius, RAV 4, Wish and Scion tC models are made, we were asked to leave behind on the bus any phones, tablets and other devices that might take photos.
Most people seemed a little uncomfortable with this, but the guide absolutely insisted that no photos should be taken. One Russian guy managed to take his phone off the bus but was caught taking a selfie outside the gents’ bathroom (a real highlight to show the grand kids…) and had his phone confiscated like a naughty schoolboy.
On the way up a perfectly normal flight of office stairs, we were all told we must hold the handrail.
This polite but strict and highly regimented approach gave a hint of what was to come.
A magnetic hand for counting nuts and bolts
Inside the factory was a lesson in efficiency. The staff worked quickly, looking controlled yet frantic, with no talking except for shouted instructions with a military parade ground tone.
Pallets were being driven in, delivering new supplies, and each one was placed on a specific painted box on the tarmac, numbered so each pallet was in the right place. Inside were supplies that had been ordered to exactly the number required to avoid any waste whatsoever.
Just like the pallets, everything has its place, right down to nuts and bolts. These tiny parts are selected from trays by a kind of magnetic hand which picks up exactly the number required, to save the wasted time of a human picking up the wrong number.Once selected, the nut or bolt is placed in an exact location outlined with the same shape, and numbered, until it is ready to be used. Workers know where every one of the 30,000 parts needed to make a car is at any given time.
Working on one of two shifts from 6am to midnight, the workers rotate jobs every two hours to keep their minds fresh. If they need to go to the bathroom, they pull a hand rail to signal for a manager who comes and takes their place on the production line, so it never has to stop moving.
Giant seahorse robots
If this preciseness gives the impression of subdued, robotic workers doing the will of the bosses, it might be good to know that all employees are asked to regularly contribute ideas on anything from the detail of the working process to technological innovations. Rather than being nervous to contribute, the workers submit an incredible 600,000 ideas per year.
That being said, there is plenty of robotic work going on. Ninety percent of the processes in the factory are automated, and almost all of the human work is done at the assembly stage, the last of four major stages which follows stamping (cutting metal), welding and painting.
The welding and painting processes are a remarkable sight. Giant robots, somewhere in the region of 15 ft tall, go about their work in a steady but fluid manner that’s reminiscent of a prehistoric creature too large to move jerkily.
The robots’ actual appearance is similar to that of a seahorse or a knight on a chess board. Lined up along a production line as they work on cars rolling by, they move like a cross between a Transformer and a diplodocus.
The end result, of course, is that each of the 1,500 cars produced at that plant per day has the reliability for which Toyota and Japanese cars are known.
A brief history of Toyota
Toyota Industries was started by Sakichi Toyoda as an organization making looms, in 1924. Toyoda Automatic Loom Works began researching small gasoline powered engines in 1930, and the Toyota Motor Company was started in 1937 under the watch of Sakichi’s son Kiichiro.
The Toyotpet Crown, the first fully fledged passenger car for the company, was launched in 1955 and prototypes were exported to the USA in 1957.
It was also during the 1950s that the city was renamed, changing from Koromo to Toyota, in honor of the cars that would make it rich.
Why “Toyota” and not “Toyoda”
There are a number of reasons why Toyota is spelled slightly differently to the family name, Toyoda. One, the founders wanted to separate their family name from their business name. Two, the number of strokes needed to write “Toyota” in Japanese is eight, and eight is considered a lucky number in Japan (the shape representing infinite possibilities). A final reason is that they thought “Toyota” would be easier for foreigners to say.
And they were right to consider that, given that Toyota went on to be one of the most successful global companies in history.