TOKYO -- The earthquake's dust was still settling when Toyota's purchasing unit switched into crisis mode. And suddenly suppliers found themselves barraged with uncomfortable questions.
No detail was too small for the world's biggest car company.
Toyota wanted lists of components made by each subsupplier. Among the information sought: the subsupplier's name, where the part is made, inventory at the subsupplier, inventory in transit, inventory in process, the target vehicle, part numbers and lead time.
"They really want you to open your kimono," said an executive at one supplier working closely with Toyota and several other Japanese carmakers, who described the queries as unprecedented.
The scramble to assess pinch points in the supply chain entailed meetings twice a week with the supplier executive's company. There was rapid strategizing about swapping out hard-to-get parts for similar, but more plentiful, components. Alternate suppliers undamaged by the quake were scouted.
And Toyota began compiling a list of at-risk suppliers -- and canvassing its Tier 1s about who was using them and just how bad their exposure was, according to a series of such surveys obtained by Automotive News. A trend soon emerged: Electronics parts -- including wafer boards, microcontrollers, connectors and electric wire -- were a big worry.
Toyota Motor Corp. said Friday it will resume limited assembly at all 18 domestic plants from April 18-27, after more than a month with all but two factories offline.
Pinpointing pinch points
Toyota was the last automaker to announce it would restart all of its plants after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that hammered Japan. But its race to grasp and fix its supply chain problems underscores the challenges faced by all of Japan's automakers as they fight to restore full production.
Toyota has about 217 Tier 1 suppliers in Japan. As of April 1, it had pinpointed about 500 parts whose steady supply could not be guaranteed. A week later, it had narrowed that list to just 150 parts. Toyota declined to identify companies, comment on purchasing procedures or detail countermeasures, as it competes against rivals to secure parts.
But the surveys offer a glimpse. Finding some bottlenecks took up to two weeks, the surveys show. And four weeks after the quake, Toyota was still asking some suppliers about at-risk parts.
When a supplier was identified as sourcing from an at-risk parts maker, Toyota urged the supplier to visit the subsupplier and hammer out problems. It even provided contact information.
But some factories were closed and turning away visitors, the supplier executive says.
"All you could do is take a picture of you at the plant to show Toyota you tried," he said.
Meanwhile, switching to alternative subsuppliers is easier said than done.
Doing so often requires Tier 1 makers to submit process change requests or design change requests to carmakers that can take up to several weeks for approval in complicated cases.
And many parts are so use-specific, no replacements exist.
Further slowing the process, Toyota is laboriously checking the parts it can get -- to make sure possibly quake-damaged plants are still providing products that match original specifications.
At-risk suppliers and parts cited in Toyota's surveys were weighted toward high-tech items:
- Electric wire from Hitachi Cable, Ltd.
- Aluminum electrolytic capacitors from Nippon Chemi-Con Corp.
- Connectors from Hirose Electric Co.
- Wafers from Shin-Etsu Chemical Co.
- Microcontrollers from Freescale Semiconductor Inc.
Today's cars use from 30 to more than 100 microcontrollers.