LOS ANGELES -- Despite the earthquake crisis, Toyota Motor Co. still can build every Toyota, Lexus and Scion model in its U.S. lineup, although that may not be true by the end of this month.
Toyota's assembly plants would seem especially vulnerable to interruptions in the supply chain. Its famed just-in-time manufacturing system keeps stocks of parts at the bare minimum.
But the parts pipeline actually is quite long, said Randy Pflughaupt, head of sales administration for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. That has allowed Toyota to continue to build vehicles, though at a reduced rate.
Once that pipeline runs dry, about 150 crucial parts that are not currently being produced by suppliers may halt production of certain models or trim levels.
"Beyond that pile of parts in the pipeline for vehicles scheduled to be built, there are parts interruptions for future vehicles yet to be built," said Pflughaupt, who oversees U.S. vehicle distribution.
He declined to say when the parts would stop flowing or what models or trim levels would be affected first. Entire vehicle lines might be derailed, but in some cases it may mean simply painting a car a different color than the customer ordered.
Some vehicles might run at 70 percent of their normal production rate and others might be at 20 percent, depending on parts availability.
Toyota could keep plants operating at full steam, but it would run out of parts sooner. It prefers to run them at a slower rate, conserving parts, than have to shut down and idle workers, Pflughaupt said.
The crisis also has led to changes in the way dealers order cars. Toyota typically has allowed dealers to put in orders for specific vehicles about two months ahead of delivery. For North American vehicles, the window for dealers has been cut to about two weeks before it is built.
For Japan-built vehicles, dealers now cannot place an order until a vehicle is on a ship coming across the Pacific Ocean, Pflughaupt said.
"There is a big level of uncertainty of what will be built and when it will be built," he said.
One thing Toyota won't do, he said, is load up vehicles with factory options to extract more profit from each one that is sold.
Pflughaupt's Los Angeles team is putting in long hours, communicating with supplier plants from Tennessee to Japan. As it turns out, Toyota's recall crisis last year may have put it in a better position to cope with the current situation. Regions were given more autonomy, so Toyota now has cross-functional teams that can quickly communicate between the sales, distribution and manufacturing arms.
"We had this team all put together," he said. "We had the roles, structure and ability to mobilize it. Within eight hours of the quake hitting, we were off and running."