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 every component made by lower tier subsuppliers usually far off the radar: 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, to name a few.
"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 twice weekly meetings with his 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 — everything from wafer boards and microcontrollers to connectors and electric wire — were a big worry.
Toyota Motor Corp. said April 8 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.
Toyota was the last automaker to restart all its plants following the March 11 earthquake 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 217 Tier 1 suppliers in Japan. As of April 1, it had pinpointed about 500 parts whose steady supply can't 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, it shows. 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, adding: "All you could do is take a picture of you at the plant to show Toyota you tried."