GEORGETOWN, Ky. - The Sienna minivan represents pay-back time for Toyota.
U.S. automakers have long studied Toyota to learn how to make their factories run smoother.
Now Toyota is launching its new minivan in Georgetown, Ky., based on lessons it gleaned studying the production lines of Chrysler Corp. and Ford Motor Co.
'There was a lot we didn't know,' admits Cheryl Jones, manager of Georgetown's No. 2 assembly plant, where the Sienna will go into production in July. 'Chrysler was very helpful.'
The industry takes it for granted that a global player like Toyota Motor Corp. knows everything about building vehicles. But the Kentucky team faces a double challenge launching the Sienna.
First, Toyota's U.S. manufacturing operations have never built a minivan. They have tapped their Japanese colleagues to help them start up vehicles already in production in Japan - the Camry, the Corolla, the Tacoma pickup, and next year, the T100 pickup. They have even launched a car that is unique to North America, the Avalon.
But no minivan.
ONE LINE FOR ALL
Second, the Japanese parent company has limited experience with minivans. The Previa is supplied by a Toyota affiliate, Toyota Auto Body Co., so the automaker had to figure out how to handle such issues as installing headliners and floor coverings that are much larger than those on the Camry.
Toyota also had to figure out how to train workers to assemble a minivan moving down the same production line as the Camry. Workers will switch between vehicles that require different assembly steps.
No other auto plant in North America assembles cars and minivans on the same assembly line.
Jones, a former supermarket employee who now oversees the Toyota plant, is still wowed by the slick operations she saw at Chrysler. She says her team discovered material-handling equipment and plant automation tools that would have worked well at the Kentucky minivan operation. But Toyota discovered them too late, she says.
One Chrysler line turned four minivans sideways at a time. That gives Chrysler workers more room to reach into the back of the vans and perform interior work.
'Ever since I've been back, I've been racking my brain trying to think of a way to turn our minivans sideways,' she says.
That's not likely, considering the way Toyota engineers shoehorned the Sienna into the car-assembly operation.
Minivans require a new set of components. Building Camrys and Avalons one after the other does not require the plant to keep bins of dramatically different parts. Camry seats are not dramatically different from Avalon seats. Camry doors are not too different from Avalon doors in the eyes of the automated equipment that removes them and carries them away to protect them from damage during assembly.
But the addition of minivans forced Toyota to install banks of new equipment - including at least 50 new automatic-assist tools just to lift heavier minivan components out of containers and install them. Equipment is now dedicated to carefully whisk away the Sienna doors, side-by-side with the Camry door-removal area. The doors are rejoined to their vehicles later in assembly.
The Sienna's larger glass windows require separate racks by the line and separate lifting tools to pick them up. The minivan carpets are so large, they cannot be hoisted into place by hand.
The Sienna is 12 inches taller. A worker must pull out a step stool to fully reach across the top of the minivan. Toyota had to dedicate stretches of the line to a long, three-foot-high platform where workers can better reach for jobs like installing roof racks.
Jones displays designs that plant workers devised to solve problems in building the vans. They crafted step stools that could be easily whipped out for a minivan, and then quickly folded out of the way when a Camry comes along.
The Georgetown work force was unaccustomed to working inside the longer vehicles. Workers devised a small, collapsible bench on rollers to let workers scoot from one end of the van to the other while running wires or putting down carpets.
Chrysler and Ford also supplied answers about painting the vehicles. How, for example, do you paint the inside tracks of sliding van doors? How do you efficiently install a large door that is on runners rather than hinges? How do you avoid damaging the rear cargo door during production when it opens above the height of the minivan roof? And how do you prop open the cargo door while reaching inside to work?
In some cases, Jones notes, there was no way to change the 'minivan way' of production in order to fit the Camry line. The Toyota team instead had to change the procedure for building the Camry. The heating and air conditioning unit is now installed at a different point on the line because of differences in the minivan's system. The points where headliners and wire harnesses are installed also were moved.
Toyota will not disclose its sales projections for the Sienna. Assembly No. 2 has the capacity to build 200,000 vehicles a year, and the flexibility to turn the faucet back and forth between Camry and minivan production. But with Camry sales booming this year, it is not likely that Toyota will turn the faucet too far toward the minivan.
Still, why would Chrysler and Ford help Toyota attack a market where they obtain so much of their profits?
'They were happy to help us,' Jones says. 'We've provided them with assistance when they've asked. By sharing ideas it will only make us both stronger. When your competitor gets better, then you get better.'
Meanwhile, Toyota continues sharing information with the Big 3. So far this year, groups of people from Chrysler have requested a dozen different visits to the Georgetown plant to gather information on Toyota's lean production system. Ford groups have requested or made seven visits. General Motors, which also is going after the minivan market with renewed zeal this year, has requested 17 visits.