Toyota Tour

Late last week, I had the opportunity to visit the Toyota factory at Altona in Melbourne. If you have the opportunity to visit the plant before it closes in late 2017, I highly recommend you do. It’s around about a 6 month wait for groups (At least it was when I signed up in March this year, but you may get in if you are a small group. You never know, there may be a late cancellation. The tour is free, and you get to see the Toyota Production System first hand. i.e., Genchi Genbutsu (Go and See). 

The tour guide took us first to the pressing plant where the sheet metal for the car bodies were being pressed. Those dies are huge and heavy. I remember reading in the Toyota Way where in other car companies previously, it would take hours to change over dies to different molds. On the tour, we were told that it would take minutes. A few for the lighter dies, and up to 12 for the heavier. Everything was controlled by one crane operator who controlled everything from the ground. So he know where to place everything. There was still a cabin for the crane where the operator previously sat, and they would have someone below guiding, but by having the operator on the ground, it made things more efficient, and that was the whole point. Efficiency as simply as possible. We saw simple solutions to get efficient. For example, when bonnets are pressed and stacked. To prevent them from banging into each other and causing dents in the metal, tennis balls on string were used to separate the bonnets. A simple solution, but it did the job. There was also complex solutions. They had autonomous rovers that would carry parts to and from assembly areas. These rovers would follow a magnetic strip along the ground. They would stop if anyone got within 50-100cm from the rover. And they would run every where at a slow walking pace.

I could see first hand the limiting of parts of each station. There would be a bin for each station for the required parts that the operator would take from. A second bin would be present for when the first one was used up. And possibly a third. When the bin was empty, an electronic Kanban system was triggered to fetch another load if required. Speaking of Kanban’s, these were gathered every 38 minutes. An announcement was made at one facility for them to be gathered by Supervisors.

There was only one area where there was inventory. That was for parts that came directly from Japan. We were told that the only reason they had inventory was in case of Typhoons and other delays. Otherwise everything comes as required.

For every car that comes off the line in one end, the materials to make another car come in from the other. The whole system is a highly coreographed dance. 

Everything is made in the order it was ordered. For example, you have one red Camry, another white Aurion. A blue Camry hybrid etc. Each car is made in that order. They do not do batches. For example, 50 Camry’s white, 50 Camry’s blue etc. We didn’t get to see inside the paint facilities, but they showed us a video from Megafactories of the painting. Each car is painted individually. You may have one white car, and then next to it, only 50 to 100cm away, a blue car. The painting is so accurate, that there is no splatter. To reduce splatter, the car is charged negative and the paint is charged positive so that they are attracted to one another. Exhaust fans drive excess paint down through the floor – what little waste there is. Everything is paced based on “takt” Time, which is the frequency it takes to produce vehicles. The takt time is based on orders. For example, a slow day may produce 80 vehicles per shift, a fast paced one would be 200 vehicles per shift. Everything is based on the number of orders. Painting is also where the most time taken to manufacture a vehicle takes place. It takes 12-15 hours for the paint to dry and 24 hours total for a car to be manufactured.

If it did happen where a major part was for the wrong vehicle, for example the seats, then the right seats would be taken from the limited stock on site. By the time the vehicle for that stock was taken is about to be put together, a replacement would have been on site. It takes around about 16 minutes for local suppliers to get replacement parts where required.

As I mentioned previously, the Toyota Factory is closing late next year. It’s going to be a hard time for the workers there, but from what I saw, the management does not take this lightly. There is a training center where employees get skilled up to help them find a job later. Management has a “Food for Thought” drive, where senior management will have a meal together with every employee who wants one.  This in my opinion shows respect for their employees. I have never seen something like this happen in my entire working life. 

While I was on the tour, I did ask one question. I’m curious about Kaizen. I’m the sort of person who comes up with a lot of ideas, and usually comes up with some sort of prototype to test the theory. Anyway, my question was “How often is the Kaizen workshops done? Is it monthly or as required?” I was told that it is as required. When an employee comes up with an idea, it is evaluated straight away. No idea is too stupid. 

I like this sort of thinking in companies. It uses their people as a resource for innovation. I saw something similar when I visited the Telstra innovation hub late last year. Telstra has a system where employees could submit ideas online, they would be evaluated by their peers through a Monopoly money type System where each employee has $100 and can invest that money however they see fit in other people’s ideas to fund them. 

If you want to learn more about the Toyota Production System and Lean manufacturing, or Lean in general, I highly recommend the following books.

The Toyota Way – Jeffrey Liker
Lean Thinking – Womack and Jones

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