The Most Versatile Line In The World

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If you wish to see the automobile manufacturing unit of the longer term, you might want to beg Toyota to allow you to into their Takaoka plant close to the corporate’s headquarters in Toyota Metropolis, Japan. In the event that they allow you to in, put together for a revelation. Ever because the first automobiles rolled down Ford’s meeting line a bit greater than 100 years in the past, a Gordian knot strangulated carmakers the world over: Meeting traces are quick, however rigid. After pulling a couple of strings to get into the Takaoka plant, you will note the Gordian knot turn into untied.

Final November, I had cajoled Toyota into admitting the 12 world vacationers of the Magical Thriller Plant Tour into the internal sanctum of automobile manufacturing effectivity. In the present day, I’m right here for a a lot nearer look, and for a protracted discuss with the plant’s grand grasp Osamu Akahane, Venture Normal Supervisor of the Takaoka Plant. However earlier than we do a deep dive, let’s ask crucial query:  Why would you desire a versatile automobile plant? Isn’t it sufficient that the rattling factor spits out automobiles in ever rising numbers?

Toyota

Did we simply hear “ever rising numbers?”

Meeting traces are nice at constructing automobiles in nice numbers and at comparatively excessive pace. On the identical time, meeting traces abhor change. Meeting traces just about have two speeds: On, or off. They hate to go a lot quicker, or a lot slower, than their rated pace. Strive introducing a brand new automobile mannequin to the meeting line of previous, and also you typically face months of retooling. When demand for the automobile will increase, clients typically should wait months for the long-tailed meeting line beast to catch up. When demand slackens, crops usually have to be idled. Takaoka is a marvel of manufacturing engineering that solves all that, after which some.

However first, lets discover out why meeting traces are so cussed. For this train, let’s assume you will have been gifted a automobile manufacturing unit with room for 2 meeting traces. Whereas studying the auto enterprise, you used the house of 1 line for a largely guide manufacturing of your first two high-end automobiles. Inspired by their success, you develop a automobile for the plenty. To make that automobile, you construct a high-speed manufacturing line, good for 250,000 automobiles per yr.

Folks love the automobile, and demand is off the size. How do you double output to 500,000 automobiles a yr?

“Simple,” you say, “simply make that line run quicker.” Let’s see what occurs as you crank up the pace. 

There may be that man who used to lock ten bolts on each automobile. Now, the road runs twice as quick, and he can, even when pushed, solely fasten 5 bolts earlier than the automobile has moved out of attain. So what will we do?

“Rent extra individuals.”

Nice. Now we’ve got two guys who fasten 5 bolts every. Nonetheless, the blokes take up twice the house. And so do all the opposite lots of of fellows we added to the road.  What will we do?

Toyota

“Make the road longer!” Good thought.  For a line that runs twice as quick, we’d find yourself with a line twice as lengthy. However the place will we put it?  You understand that the manufacturing unit that was given to you is surrounded by residential housing. Your parking heaps already are flowing over with the automobiles of the brand new hires. 

To make issues worse, our manufacturing line is dotted with mounted stations performing mounted duties, like including seats to the automobile, or dropping in engines, or dashboards. To permit for the brand new size of the road, these mounted stations must be ripped out of the bottom, and moved. Together with that, the conveyor belts bringing the seats, engines, and dashboards, additionally must be moved. Within the previous model automobile manufacturing unit that was given to us, automobile shells are hanging from the ceiling till they get mated with the suspension system. The station the place the mating takes place must be ripped out and moved. And that’s simply scratching the floor.

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Your engineers are already imploring you to construct a brand new 250,000 unit per yr line elsewhere, which might be a lot simpler and extra environment friendly, they declare, however you’re the boss, and also you need extra automobiles NOW.

 “What about three shifts” you say? You’ll rapidly discover out that three shifts ought to be run solely in a dire emergency, and just for a short time. With a 3rd shift, your price goes up as employees get 25% extra, or typically time and a half. Your line breaks down usually, since you don’t have the time for upkeep at night time.  And bear in mind, we needed to double our output. With a 3rd shift, we’d solely add 125,000 items for a theoretical whole of 375,000 … till one thing breaks. 

Toyota

“Robots. Let’s purchase a number of robots.” Earlier than you run to ABB, or Kuka, and purchase a military of bots, you first might wish to discuss to different automakers, like GM or Volkswagen, who had the identical nice thought.  They’d inform you that robots are nice for repetitive duties like welding, or portray,  however they fail at selecting and dealing with small elements. Robots take up more room than people. And as a rule, robots decelerate the road versus rushing it up.  Unbelievable, no?

Sufficient principle already. Let’s go to Toyota, and watch robots race towards people.

We’re in Takaoka I, a reasonably trendy automobile plant put in in 2007. Manufacturing unit chief Akahane-san pulls out a stopwatch, and we time a robotic placing a spare tire right into a Corolla. Between pulling the tire out of a rack, navigating between Corollas transferring down the road, and dropping the tire into the Corolla, 57 seconds expire.  “We make a brand new automobile each 60 seconds on that line, and the spare tire robotic is among the many the reason why the road can’t do it quicker,” Akahane says.

Then we stroll throughout the highway to Takaoka II. The one factor this line has in widespread with Takaoka I is the identify. This “easy and slim” manufacturing unit is the antithesis of a huge Alien Dreadnought. Takaoka II is the Judo fighter of automobile crops: Fast on its toes, versatile, and sensible.

Right here, a employee pulls the spare tire with one thing that appears like a pushcart with lengthy arms. The employee wheels the cart round, and he drops the tire right into a Prius. Elapsed time: 17 seconds.  I’m searching for electrical cables, or air hoses that energy the lightning-fast spare tire machine. I don’t discover any. “It’s all executed with springs and counter-weights,” Akahane beams.

On high of it, the muscle-powered, spring-loaded, counter-weighted tire machine can journey up and down the road, so as to add spare tires the place wanted.  Over at Takaoka I, the 57 second gradual robotic was bolted in place, and it stubbornly held up any makes an attempt of adjusting the road.

Toyota

“Alright,” you say, “you changed a robotic with a human, however how does this make the road versatile?”

The trick of Takaoka II is that there is no such thing as a manufacturing line per se. As an alternative, the automobiles trundle alongside on foot-high motorized dollies that run between platforms on either side of the road. So long as you will have the ground house, you may lengthen the road, and ramp your manufacturing over the weekend. The longer line now has room for extra individuals, and with the not mounted stations moved, the road can run quicker, and make extra automobiles. The ramp gained’t comply with an S-curve, manufacturing gained’t go up exponentially. On Monday, output will leap vertically, straight as much as the place you need it.

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When you don’t want the capability, you shorten the road, re-arrange the movable stations, partition off the corridor to avoid wasting on air con, and re-assign employees to different elements of Toyota. Ought to the road not be wanted anymore in any respect sometime, it may be put into containers, and to raised use elsewhere. 

The latter is unlikely, as a result of the place Takaoka II actually shines is together with its older sibling at Takaoka I. The older brother is most effective when operating at 200,000 automobiles per yr. If there may be extra demand for the Harrier and Corolla automobiles made on Takaoka I, some manufacturing might be shifted to the versatile line at Takaoka II. If demand drops, manufacturing is shifted again to Takaoka I to maintain the road operating at its optimum one automobile per minute pace. Takaoka II is far more forgiving so far as price per car goes. “Takaoka II can improve and reduce capability, and manufacturing price stays the identical” says Akahane.

For different automakers, substantial will increase or decreases in capability usually imply constructing new factories, or idling present ones. At Toyota, it may be executed over the weekend. Staff lay down cable trays on a flat store ground. As an alternative of a multitude of cables, just one fats cable is linked. The place cables should cross the road, a gate formed cable tray on casters is rolled into place. Platforms are set down left and proper to information motorized dollies for automobiles in nascent state. Previously mounted stations are rolled in place down the road, and on Monday, the plant has a totally completely different capability than what it was on Friday. In the middle of a yr, this magical capability conversion can occur a number of instances.

Robots working alongside the road are a bit much less versatile. Over at Takaoka I, the job of gluing in a windshield was the job of two robots, housed in a 33ft lengthy cage to guard employees from their fast actions.  In Takaoka II, one bot was fired, the entire course of is dealt with by a solitary robotic in a cage one third the dimensions. The 10ft lengthy robotic station sits on one base, and are available capability change, the caged bot is moved down the road with a easy forklift.  

Toyota

Like all Toyota factories, Takaoka II is constructed on the on-going “kaizen” enhancements developed by its employees who wish to make their employee go quicker, smoother, smarter. Requested what sort of individuals he’s searching for to work at Takaoka II, Akahane solutions: “We wish individuals who can assume for themselves, not robots who do as they’re instructed.” The plant can’t and doesn’t wish to do completely with out the bots. They largely work in a separate corridor, the place metallic is stamped and welded earlier than the automobile our bodies are fed to separate paint outlets of Takaoka I and Takaoka II, and from there to meeting.

As an alternative of attempting to max out each cubic meter of the corridor, Takaoka II kind of ignores the third dimension. Every thing occurs on one flat aircraft. There are not any overhead gantries, and since nothing occurs above, there are not any top restrictions for the automobiles made on the store ground. There may be a whole lot of these two dimensions at the back of the large, however easy corridor Takaoka II occupies: Half of its house sits empty, respiratory house for the versatile traces. 

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The super-flexible “Takaoka II might theoretically construct any variety of fashions on the identical line,” tells me Akahane, “but it surely in all probability would cease making sense at six.”  At present, Takaoka I makes the Corolla and the Harrier, whereas Takaoka II builds the Prius V and the RAV4. A couple of months in the past, the combination was completely different, and in a couple of months, the combination will likely be completely different once more.  

Takaoka II is also able to miracles. In older crops, re-tooling a manufacturing line between mannequin adjustments can typically imply months of downtime. When Volkswagen launched its MQB modular package, it was happy with having shaved the changeover instances down to a couple weeks. How lengthy does Akahane should cease the road when a brand new mannequin is launched?

He shapes thumb and index finger to a zero. “There isn’t any stoppage of the road in any respect.  We spend lower than an hour exchanging elements and instruments, however we try this whereas the road makes different fashions.”  As manufacturing of the brand new mannequin begins in the beginning of the road, the final of the older fashions exit on the different finish whereas the road retains transferring.

What would occur if the road stops? Akahane’s hand slices throughout his throat. “My boss would lower my head off if the road could be down.”

Toyota

And the way a lot did this miracle line price? “The CAPEX of Takaoka II was half of Takaoka I,” says a smiling Akahane.

The easy, slim and versatile idea was born throughout the carmageddon of 2008. The world over, the longtailed assembly-line beasts began devouring their homeowners. Fewer automobiles or not, the beasts demanded to be fed a gentle weight loss plan of cash. GM and Chrysler went bankrupt. Factories have been closed. Manufacturers and sellers have been culled. Smaller carmakers like Volvo, Saab, Jaguar, Mazda, have been changed into sorely wanted money at fireplace sale costs. Frugally-run Toyota survived 2008 with its first loss ever, and so they determined by no means to be caught once more with unneeded capability. By now, the easy and slim idea has been rolled out to Toyota factories in Guangzhou and Tianjin, China, and it is going to be within the quickly to be opened Toyota plant in Guanajuato that “ought to be capable of make almost something Toyota executives ask for.”

Once we have been theorizing a couple of gifted automobile plant, the instance might have vaguely gave the impression of Toyota’s NUMMI plant, that was, for sensible functions, given to Tesla in 2010 in alternate for shares. A yr later, Toyota opened its first easy, slim and versatile plant as a pilot north of Sendai, Japan, and some years thereafter, Toyota offered its shares in Tesla.  If the connection would have lasted a bit longer, and if Elon Musk’s hubris would have been rather less pronounced, Tesla might have discovered one thing. 

Earlier than touchdown in manufacturing hell, and pitching a tent to make his Mannequin three, Musk promised that he would out-Toyota Toyota with regards to lean manufacturing. He had a catchy identify for Tesla’s non-existent miracle plant. He known as it the Alien Dreadnought. I ask Akahane what Toyota calls its super-flexible line. 

“We don’t actually have a reputation for it,” Akahane says, and he doesn’t appear to assume it wants one.  

Toyota


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