The Role of Technology – Adapting It Appropriately

March 27, 2009 - Tags:

In industry today, the watchword is flexibility. Everyone wants to be as flexible as possible and Toyota is no exception. Originally, what allowed Toyota to compete with global players was its flexibility. To Toyota, flexibility does not mean pushing the latest and greatest technology onto operations and struggling to make it work. Toyota follows Toyota Way Principle 8: Use only reliable, thoroughly tested technology that serves your people and processes. Again, “testing” involves both existing technology and new or cutting-edge technology that Toyota has thoroughly evaluated and piloted to prove that it works.

One example of this is in the body shop, where the automotive body is welded together. This has been one of the few places for years where a lot of robotics is used and with great success. But it is also the place that most limits flexibility in making cars. Ultimately, all of the large panels that make up a vehicle must be held in place and welded together just right. There are complex fixtures that hold the parts of the body in place. Originally these fixtures were specific to a particular car body. To produce a different car body required changing all of the fixtures manually, which took weeks of hard work. Flexible body shops were a major innovation that allowed multiple car bodies to be made in the same shop. And this also allowed for a much more rapid changeover from one year’s model to the new model. Toyota eventually learned to do this without stopping the line—called a “running change” in the industry.

Nevertheless, Toyota’s body shop still was not very flexible, because it used very expensive pallets that were designed to hold the body parts in place for different cars. For example, there would be a Camry pallet and an Avalon pallet. And you could not change the mix of Camry and Avalons that could be run (e.g., going from 70% Camry to 80% Camry) without building new pallets and changing the mix of pallets—an expensive and time-consuming proposition. Now, instead of the car body riding on a customized pallet, it is being held in place by robots that can be programmed for each car body. The bodies ride on something like a ski lift. The earlier pallet system held the body together from the outside in and had fixtures sized and positioned differently for each vehicle. The new system has a programmable fixturing device that holds the parts together from the inside out—a radical new concept that improves flexibility. And it takes up about half the space. Toyota calls this new global standard the “blue sky system.” Among other things, it is not as tall as the old system and has allowed for more “blue sky” in the body shop, which used to be dark and dingy and now is very open and bright—for the people working there. They also call it the Global Body Line, since it is being introduced as a new standard in every Toyota plant in the world. Different car models can be run back to back and the mix can be changed instantly through a change in programming. It is a true one-piece flow and will be a key contributor to Toyota’s move toward “build to order.”

Often when manufacturers implement new systems like this, it is a disaster—disrupting production, creating quality problems, and keeping maintenance busy fighting fires for years. But Toyota implemented the “blue sky technology” systematically, module by module, replacing pieces of the old equipment as it was running. They never missed a beat. As Don Jackson, Vice President of Manufacturing at Toyota’s Georgetown, Kentucky, operation, explained:

At Toyota Georgetown, we were the seventh plant to get the new blue sky system. And it takes up roughly half the space of the old line. So we actually put two new body shops in the place of one to support our two assembly lines. But we had to do that during mass production at full production capacity. We didn’t have any space. So every week we moved a piece of the line off-line and we put a new piece in. And we had 13-14-year-old equipment, so it was pretty challenging trying to make sure it ran the next Monday.

For example, to create a place for the new underbody welding, we had to clear out some restrooms and some area where we could make a space and start assembling there. We would use part of the old line and part of the new line in parallel until we changed it over. And once we had the first line in, we had an empty space to put new equipment in. So, then we were OK, but the first year it was interesting.

I asked Jackson how Toyota could pull this off—launching an entire new body shop while continuing to make cars without any production losses, while maintaining 96% uptime, when most U.S. body shops are lucky to run at 80-85% uptime. He gave a typical Toyota answer:

Well, probably one of the big things is attention to detail. I probably stand myself, even at the vice president level, at least six or seven hours on the floor a day. And a big part of this is genchi genbutsu—go and see activity—and doing the “five whys” problem investigation. Why are we only running 90%? If the management tools are all on the plant floor in a visual fashion, then you don’t have to look at a computer or go to somebody’s desk. It’s visual, and you can manage the floor from the actual floor. So that’s what I’m trying to make sure happens.

What we see here is a blend of sophisticated technology for flexible body welding combined with human approaches to management. Despite being programmable, the new “inside out” approach is far simpler and has led to greatly reduced equipment maintenance cost and less downtime of the system. And even with a complex computerized system, team associates use simple visual displays to help them assess what is going on. The global body line meets Toyota’s acid test for new technology—lean, simple, and speedy. It has resulted in 50% fewer processes to weld the body together, 70% less investment to change over the line for a new vehicle, and 75% less time to go from launch to meeting Toyota’s high-quality targets.

It is interesting to note that I attended a presentation at the University of Michigan by Toyota’s North American president who described this system to a room full of experts on “reconfigurable” manufacturing technology. Their immediate question was: “how could you anticipate all the benefits of this new technology and cost justify it?” His answer made it seem obvious. They did some rough calculations and based on one changeover in the next few years the system would pay for itself. “It was easy to justify,” he said. The experts were shocked as many had struggled to do careful cost justifications and their companies demanded a one year payback or they would not make the investment. At Toyota, the decision makers are typically very experienced engineers who have worked on the floor. If it seems clear that the new technology has been thoroughly evaluated and will pay for itself in the long term the decision to adopt it seems easy and obvious.

Just as Toyota refuses to push parts made in one department onto another department, Toyota refuses to allow an information technology department or advanced manufacturing technology department to push technology onto departments that do the value-added work of designing and building cars. Any information technology must meet the acid test of supporting people and processes and prove it adds value before it is implemented broadly.