Making of a Highlander
I had the opportunity to tour Toyota’s assembly plant in Evansville, IN last year and thought maybe I’d share my experience.
I highly recommend the tour if you are in town, or any other Toyota plant throughout the country. Do call ahead, as I believe you have to make a reservation. In my case, a coworker knew someone there who set it up.
Upon arrival, everyone is given a locker and you must put all cell phones or any kind of recording equipment in it. Once that’s out of the way, they have a small auditorium that the give you a presentation in. I found this particularly interesting as they detailed how much of an influence they have on the community and of their presence in schools as early as elementary levels. They like to build their work force and have many programs that allow you to work, while getting an education and becoming what you want. Our host started on the line, went to school, got his degree and is now a Toyota Engineer, all while working at that plant.
On to the fun stuff- next it’s to the “golf cart train” as I referred to it, and into the plant. Right away I noticed an employee on a small train full of parts waiting at what appeared to be a starting line. He was watching a clock intently. At the precise moment, he drove the parts to where they needed to go. This is timed, as efficiency is diminished if parts arrive early or late. This was a theme throughout the plant.
We saw a good part of the plant, starting with stacks of sheet metal. It’s all expertly stamped, cut, assembled and inspected as the line moves. There is literally a rope that traverses the entire assembly line allowing any employee to pull it and stop the line if there is any safety or quality concern. Safety, and efficiency is evident in everything that they do. They encourage employees to submit suggestions to this end. In fact, there is an entire department that evaluates these suggestions then works with the employee to design, build and implement ideas. One example of this I saw on the Sienna assembly line. Employees had to enter the empty shell of each van and work on the floor board. Normally this would involve climbing, stooping, bending, etc. As a result of an employee suggestion, they now have these devices that appear to be a giant robot arm with a seat on the end, allowing the employee to swoop into the shell, do their work, and ease right back out, much faster than before and with much less risk of injury. And speaking of injuries, each employee indicates on their daily time record with a simple check mark if they experienced any discomfort during their shift. When this box is checked, a team comprised of ergonomic experts shows up the very next day to observe the employee work, offering suggestions as to how to make them more comfortable or identify if that particular job should be done differently.
I learned that everything is made right there in that plant, with the exception of engines, transmissions and instrument clusters, which are made nearby and brought in. The entire assembly process, from stacks of sheet metal to a driving car takes just 17 hours, of which, 10 hours are spent in the paint shop.
There are a number of robots in use, but Toyota emphasized numerous times that they are designed to assist the workers and not to replace them. I also saw small little “R2D2” type robots scurrying around here and there.
Everything appeared organized, employees on the line were relaxed but focused, and overall I was very impressed. In case anyone was wondering, I didn’t see any Japanese people around; everything was “all American”.
They seem to take good care of the employees; they have a day care on site as well as a grocery store. In many ways, the facility was very much like a small city.
While I watched a worker installing a stereo while studying a detail sheet- a customer had custom ordered this van with specific option instructions- something that I learned that anyone can do from a dealer. I imagine this is not widely advertised, as they want to move current inventories. Having bought 6 new Toyotas myself, I know that my “guy” is able to identify what I want and find it online whether it be at another dealer, on a truck, or in the case of my ’08 Highlander, on the ship from Japan. Speaking of which, I recall them saying that 2008 was the last year that they made the Highlander in Japan- there on out and currently, all Sienna’s and Highlanders in the world are made right there in Evansville.
I’ve been a Toyota guy all my life, having owned Corollas, a Camry, Sienna, Highlander and a Rav 4. Reliability has been excellent and improves with each new one I buy. In the case of my 2008 Highlander, which is nearing 10 years old/ 145,000 miles, it runs superbly, doesn’t leak any fluids, all accessories work perfectly, and a glance under the hood reveals clear fluids all around and a pristine appearance to all components. I’ve only done brakes twice and the only other work outside of scheduled maintenance was struts, which I did last year.
If I wasn’t already a Toyota guy, I would be after the tour. I was that impressed. I have a background in Safety and Quality Assurance and while this note talks a lot about the employees, they have a massive impact on quality of the finished product. Well taken care of employees make the difference.
I asked a group of employees if they received a bonus of some type if they author a suggestion that leads to savings- everyone stopped talking and stared at me- they explained that they take so much pride in their job that the mere participating in and contributing to making things more safe and efficient helps everyone and Toyota, which in the end, keeps the product selling and them in a job. Now THAT is a level of dedication that one doesn’t see often.