Toyota's assembly and components plants in the United States and Canada are expected to go back to work on May 4, along with much of the rest of the industry. But it will be a long, slow slog before the inventor of the Toyota Production System gets close to anything nearing a normal run rate.
"This is more of an opening day," cautioned Chris Reynolds, head of manufacturing for Toyota Motor North America. While the automaker has sufficient stores of parts on hand to start building vehicles once workers return to plants, Reynolds said Toyota would take time "to shake off the rust" with workers who haven't been on the job in more than a month, and to implement and train workers in extensive new safety procedures that will both slow the run rates of assembly lines and hopefully help keep them safe.
"I would be surprised if a car rolls off a line anywhere on May 4," Reynolds told reporters on a conference call Thursday. The new procedures — including staggering entrance and exit times to avoid crowding, altering workspaces to allow workers to be separate from one another, and placing physical barriers to separate workers in close proximity — "are going to take some time, and we're going to take the time."
There is not a rush, at least not yet. Reynolds said Toyota and Lexus dealers have sufficient inventory available of all of the automaker's products to meet their needs in the short term, even presuming a stronger-than-expected restart of retail sales nationally. But the company will prioritize its ramp-up on products with strong sell rates, including pickups, crossovers and SUVs, meaning those domestic factories could see a quicker return to more normalized production rates than some sedan plants.
"We are seeing that the rate of sales is about 20,000 units ahead of our plan. So that's one of the factors that is going into our decision to try and restart on May 4," Reynolds said. "We're seeing a demand in particular regions of the country that, while it's substantially off from pre-COVID levels, it's more robust than we thought."
Toyota has been keeping in touch with its hourly workers while they are away from the plants, asking them to keep fit and do range-of-motion exercises in anticipation of them returning to their jobs. Reynolds said Toyota is aware of 24 production employees infected with COVID-19: 13 have recovered, with the others in various stages of treatment. The company isn't aware of any deaths among its workers thus far.
Toyota's North American production has been shut down since the last week of March, affecting roughly 32,000 employees across the continent. Toyota's plants in Mexico will remain shuttered until that nation lifts its shelter-in-place order, Reynolds said.
Also Thursday, fellow Japanese automaker Honda Motor Co. said it would extend the shutdown of all of its North American auto plants through May 8 and extend unpaid leaves for many salaried workers.
Honda, which began its North American production shutdown on March 23, is extending its production halt by another week. The Japanese automaker also said it is extending a two-week furlough for the majority of salaried and support associates at Honda operations by another week.
Separately, General Motors said it was considering calling back some workers next week to prepare for the restart of production in North America that could begin as early as May 4 but said no decisions have been made.
Other automakers are due to announce plans for production restarts in the next few days. In order for auto assembly plants to reopen, the automakers' suppliers must ramp up operations beforehand to ensure parts get delivered to factories on time.
Reuters contributed to this report.