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OM in the News: Toyota’s Assembly Line Advances

November 29, 2011

Today’s Wall Street Journal (Nov.29,2011) features the pressures facing Toyota–overcapacity, weak demand, an exchange rate for the yen that makes Japanese-made cars expensive, quality problems that forced the recall of 10 million vehicles, and the supply chain issues caused by the March earthquake and tsunami. Competitors like Honda and Nissan are moving more manufacturing overseas, to plants closer to customers. But Toyota, long a proponent of corporate social responsibility to protect Japanese jobs, has also pledged to build at least 3 million cars annually in Japan, with 1/2 for export. So the company, which wrote the book in the 1960’s on lean manufacturing and JIT, is looking for new ways to wring out efficiencies from its production systems.

Toyota sees its first new plant in Japan in 18 years as the answer. Here is why: The Miyagi factory is designed for advanced low-volume, hyperefficient production, with 1/2 the workers and 1/2 the square footage of Toyota’s 16 other plants. Inside, half-built Corollas and Yaris sit side-by-side, rather than bumper-to-bumper, shrinking the assembly line by 35% and requiring fewer steps by workers. Instead of car chassis dangling from overhead conveyor belts, they are perched on raised platforms. This is 50% cheaper, and also reduces cooling costs by 40% because of lower ceilings. Finally, the assembly line uses quiet friction rollers to move the cars along. The rollers use fewer moving parts than typical chain-pulled conveyor belts.

This is a timely article to share with your class when you discuss assembly line layout in Chapter 9. And if you show the Wheeled Coach layout video for this chapter, the 2 assembly lines make for a good comparison.

Discussion questions:

1. How can Toyota’s new layout help improve the challenges facing the company?

2. Why are other Japanese auto manufacturers moving production to the US?

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