© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Toyota logo is seen at a Toyota Society Motors showroom in Karachi, Pakistan, July 27, 2022. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro/File Photo
By David Dolan
TOYOTA CITY, Japan (Reuters) – At factories in Japan’s industrial heartland, Toyota (NYSE:) has turned to self-propelled assembly lines, massive die casting and even old-fashioned hand polishing as it aims to make up for lost ground in battery electric vehicles.
The world’s top-selling automaker believes it can close the gap with Tesla (NASDAQ:) and others by combining new technology with the famous lean production methods it has used for decades to wring inefficiency, including excess costs, out of manufacturing.
The automaker gave a glimpse of its latest advances at a plant tour in central Japan last week, some for the first time. It also showed off examples of thrifty ingenuity, such as a technique to make high-gloss bumpers without any paint. The mold is hand polished to a mirror finish, giving the bumper its lustre.
Elsewhere, three-decade-old equipment used to process parts can now be run at night and on weekends after being automated through robotics and 3D modeling, improvements Toyota said had trebled equipment productivity.
“The strength of Toyota’s manufacturing lies in our ability to respond to changing times,” Chief Product Officer Kazuaki Shingo told reporters on the tour.
He pointed to engineering and technology expertise anchored in “TPS”, shorthand for the Toyota Production System.
Toyota revolutionised modern manufacturing with its system of lean production, just-in-time delivery and “kanban” workflow organisation. Its methods have since been adopted everywhere from hospitals to software firms and studied widely in business schools and boardrooms around the world.
The relentless focus on continuous improvement and squeezing costs helped fuel Toyota’s ascent from post-war upstart to global giant. But in battery EVs, it has been eclipsed by another tireless innovator, Tesla, which has used efficiencies of its own to build market-leading profitability.
Under new CEO Koji Sato, Toyota in June announced an ambitious plan to ramp up battery EVs, a big shift after years of criticism that the maker of the industry-leading hybrid Prius was slow to embrace fully electric technology.
The Japanese automaker accounted for only about 0.3% of the global EV market in 2022, Goldman Sachs said in June, calling a stronger offering the “missing piece” in its lineup.