To Save ‘Brand Japan’ Toyota Reinvents Its Industrial Model

A visit to the automaker's first new factory in Japan in 18 years, where the Toyota Method is refined and jobs stay at home.

New Ohira plant bucks trend of those like this one in Thailand (AlexStacy)

OHIRA - The "Made in Japan" brand might have a future yet. After a decade of shifting operations to emerging countries, hailed for their lower production costs, Toyota has opened a new factory on Japanese soil for the first time in 18 years.

Betting on its ability to reinvent the assembly-line at the new Ohira Plant, situated in the countryside some 300 km north of Tokyo, the world's biggest automobile manufacturer believes industrial innovations will compensate for the soaring yen, which has been driving more and more Japanese companies to outsource operations to meet global demand.

"We are convinced that production in Japan can stay competitive for exports," insists Atsushi Niimi, one of the Toyota's vice-presidents, during a visit to Ohira. The company produces 40 percent of its vehicles within Japan, or nearly three million units. "In Japan, the quality of manufacturing, including materials, is very high but we can make ourselves more and more competitive."

To cut costs without touching the salaries of Ohira's 900 employees, engineers at Toyota and Central Motors, the subsidiary responsible for the new factory, have been developing new concepts since 2007 to reduce the total cost of new plants, which represents a large part of the sale price of each car. They also looked at ways to rein in production cost. They came up with design for a structure that is more compact and flexible. "It's the first low-cost factory in the industry," one expert summed up.

Gaining time and space

Compared with factories using traditional methods of assembly, Ohira, which currently produces 250 Yaris every day for the American market, seems almost empty. The lines are less cluttered -- the robots and gigantic mechanical conveyors that usually transport cars from one place to another have been removed. Between the work sites, the cars under construction are moved on rolling, 50 cm-high platforms. By removing the structures from the ceiling, which required reinforced structures, and not digging into the floor to anchor the assembly line systems, Toyota maintains it has halved the cost constructing and developing the plant as well as increased its flexibility.

"We haven't rooted mechanisms into the ground. We can therefore modify the organization of the lines to our liking," an engineer points out. In reducing the total surface area of the work space and the time to move materials, the group again created a line where the cars do not progress one after the other between the different assembly points, but side by side. "This boosted our production and shortened the line by 35 percent," the engineer explains.

Time reductions have also been posted in the paint area, where a new technology allows the painting of the three necessary layers for each vehicle without waiting for drying times in between.

Gaining time, lowering the ceiling which no longer needs to support heavy equipment, and even reducing the factory's square footage, have also lowered energy consumption at the Ohira plant by 35 percent. The factory is scheduled to produce 120,000 vehicles each year, before, perhaps, boosting its capacity.

By progressively applying these innovations to all its production sites, Toyota will eventually be able to reduce investment spending by at least 40 percent. "We could ask ourselves whether opening a factory in Japan was really a good idea with such a strong yen," recalls Fujio Cho, the 68-year-old president of Toyota. "But we have to come back to our roots and remember that Toyota was founded in the hope of contributing to the development of Japan and its industrial progress. We should never have a short-term strategy."

Read the original article in French

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