IT in Toyota’s Product Development Process

March 26, 2009 - Tags:

In the early 1980s, the trend among automakers was to develop their own internal computer-aided design (CAD) system for designing parts on a computer rather than on paper blueprints. Toyota did this like everyone else, but in a way that preserved and embodied the Toyota problem-solving philosophy. The designers of the new CAD system asked, “What was the specific need for each software module (e.g., styling, die design, component design)? What were the specific conditions of use? What were the software requirements? What options were available? What was the best option?” Often the best option was a low-tech solution. For example, in analyzing stamping dies that stamp out parts, the analysis technology was not sophisticated enough to model the complexity of stamping out the part and verifying the best die design on a computer. So Toyota used a simpler solution that produced a color diagram showing the various stress points on the die. The die designer, working with an experienced die maker, then examined the diagram and made judgments on the design based on experience. In contrast, U.S. automakers implementing CAD systems did this stress analysis using software alone, then made recommendations to the die designers in a throw-it-over-the-wall fashion. The result was that the die engineers often rejected the analysis because the results were impractical or unrealistic.

As their competitors moved to the latest commercial CAD systems, Toyota maintained its homegrown system, to the chagrin of engineers and suppliers. The software is clearly outdated. But it works. Finally Toyota used the principle of “careful consideration in decision making” (nemawashi, discussed in Chapter 19) and, after two years of thinking and debating, decided to shift to CATIA (Computer-Aided Three-Dimensional Interactive Application)—a world-class CAD system used by Boeing and Chrysler and pretty well accepted as the auto industry benchmark. Toyota was slow in implementing CATIA, taking a lot of time to customize it to fit their development process. Ford, in the meantime, quickly adopted a different commercial CAD package, spent hundreds of millions of dollars deploying it internally and with suppliers, and later decided it would rather have CATIA spending millions on that and confusing a lot of people.

Toyota has continued to streamline its product development process, using very specific software solutions, and has gone from 48 months, when it first introduced CAD software in the 1980s, down to less than 12 months to develop a new vehicle. Toyota refers to this approach as “collaborative vehicle development using digital engineering.” The phrase says it all. They have found a set of relatively simple technologies that support collaborative work in the Toyota Way of product development.

These collaborative solutions always begin with a specific problem. For example, there was a problem in the old system of too much rework. Data from prototypes, vehicle evaluations, and pre-production tests fed back to engineering in the form of a series of problems to solve. But these shortcomings were discovered and fixed at the next process step, not in the place where they originated. This went against the principle of jidoka (see Principle 4), so Toyota changed the process. The new paradigm was to learn to do a lot of the testing and visualization digitally up front in the design process, thereby avoiding this downstream rework. This is absolutely necessary to get to a new vehicle design in less than one year.

Now complete assemblies, for example the instrument panels, are done digitally in three dimensions. This method builds on the standardization that Toyota does in vehicle design. For decades Toyota engineers kept detailed checklists of good and bad design features. Now these are stored electronically in a “know-how database” that allows the product to be designed with quality from the start. There is also detailed data on proper sequences in the assembly plant that a person can look at in the earliest stages of design. Engineering animation allows the engineers to watch animated versions of people putting together the vehicle to anticipate ergonomic problems and avoid them in the earliest design stage. Multi-point TV conferencing allows engineers throughout the world to watch the vehicle go together digitally and solve many of the problems that in the past would be done standing around an actual car being assembled.

The point here is that Toyota did not go into a poorly functioning development process and try to fix it using the most sophisticated computer technology. They took a finely tuned development process, based on exceptionally well-trained engineers and excellent technical leadership, and surgically inserted information technologies to enhance it. These were all proven technologies that

Toyota carefully evaluated prior to going live. Moreover, they did it maintaining the collaborative design process and the strong value placed on visualization of the actual situation in the design process.