TOYOTA CITY, Japan -- Toyota Motor Corp., still restoring global output after the Japan earthquake, is implementing the lessons learned so recovery from the next supply-chain breakdown will be speedier.
Two key lessons: use more common parts and keep better tabs on lower-tier suppliers, Atsushi Niimi, Toyota's executive vice president in charge of global manufacturing, told Automotive News.
But greater use of common parts can be risky, opening the automaker to the possibility of massive recalls if one of those parts fails.
Niimi, who also oversees the company's North American operations from Japan and headed North American manufacturing from 2002-05 from a base in Erlanger, Ky., said Toyota likely won't consider adding another North American assembly plant before annual U.S. light-vehicle sales hit 17 million.
He ruled out building the current-generation Toyota Prius in North America, effectively meaning that won't happen until perhaps 2015.
Toyota aims for full production of the Prius and most Lexuses in November. But Niimi aims to bring forward the timeline for complete global restoration -- of every model in any variation -- to October.
"I'm very much looking forward to that, but it's not for certain," Niimi said. "If we can pull it forward by one month, I think that would be a great accomplishment."
Toyota gets its next update from affected suppliers at the end of June and will adjust the recovery schedule then, he said.
Niimi said Japanese output of most models has been restored to pre-quake levels. Some models or variants lag because of lingering supply shortages.
The 17 million sales figure sets a threshold for the company's next big investment in its largest market.
"It depends on market growth," Niimi said of adding an assembly plant after its Blue Springs, Miss., factory opens this fall. "If the market transcends 17 million units again and grows further, there will be a chance to grow our North American operations," he said. U.S. light-vehicle sales last reached that level in 2001, when they hit 17.2 million.
Toyota's full recovery from the March 11 earthquake was slowed because many models rely on vehicle-specific components, especially microcontrollers, Niimi, 63, said. North American output of the Toyota RAV4 and Lexus RX crossovers, for example, won't return to normal until the autumn because of shortages of rollover-prevention sensors for those models, he said. But that will change.
"We will accelerate the shift to general-purpose microcontrollers, not waiting for full model changes but taking any opportunity possible to change to more general-purpose ones," he said.
And it's not just computer chips. Niimi said Toyota aims to commonize items such as paint pigments, rubber additives and bumper resins. Component diversity exploded as engineers sought product-specific ways to cut vehicle weight, improve fuel economy or increase interior space.