At 25, Toyota plant still lean, flexible, world-famous

November 13, 2011 

Toyota

Jared Carroll worked on a new Camry in the trim section of the line that produces Camrys and Avalons at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky.

CHARLES BERTRAM

  • About the author

    Jay S. Baron is the president and CEO of the Center for Automotive Research, a nonprofit research organization based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

An important milestone in automotive manufacturing is taking place with Toyota's celebrated Georgetown plant marking its 25th anniversary on Monday. While milestones of this type are important in any company's history, the event calls for recognition of an assembly plant that has contributed broadly to the understanding of automotive manufacturing — it is perhaps the most-observed automotive plant in North America.

Since the plant's inception, the pillars of lean production and the Toyota Production System (TPS) have been on display in Georgetown, and the world has been invited in to see it in action. Competitors have benchmarked themselves against the plant and numerous essays and books have been written about the complex.

Researchers from the Center for Automotive Research and many universities, along with legions of supplier groups, have visited Georgetown to gain exposure to new and innovative manufacturing concepts that have resulted in world class quality and benchmark-setting efficiency awards.

Toyota established Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky, the Georgetown assembly plant, in 1986, and began production there in 1988. The plant is Toyota's largest manufacturing facility outside Japan. It employs 6,300 full time workers making motor vehicles, engines and other powertrain parts. Current models produced at TMMK include the Avalon, Camry, Camry Hybrid and Venza.

Last March, the Center for Automotive Research published an economic contribution study estimating that Toyota's U.S. operations in 2010 supported an additional 25,000 jobs in Kentucky making auto parts, conducting research and design, supplying services to plants, or providing goods and services to Toyota and Toyota supplier employees.

Toyota has invested a total of $5.7 billion in the plant over the years and, as of 2010, the plant had produced more than 8 million vehicles. As a world-class manufacturing facility, the Georgetown assembly plant and its products have earned many achievements and awards. For instance, the assembly, stamping and powertrain facilities have been frequently recognized for efficiency in productivity by the Harbour Report.

The assembly plant has been awarded 10 J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Plant Awards since 1990. TMMK's products have also received recognition: several vehicles have won IQS segment awards from J.D. Power, and the Camry has been the top selling car in the United States for 13 of the past 14 years as well as the recipient of the "Most American Car" ranking in Cars.com's annual American-Made Index.

The Georgetown facility continues to be recognized as one of the world's most flexible and lean manufacturing facilities. Plant flexibility allows Toyota to respond to changes in customer demand quickly and efficiently. Flexible assembly methods at Georgetown also allow the plant to rapidly launch new vehicles with minimal impact on the production of current models.

What Toyota is most recognized for is the efficiency that is the hallmark of the TPS. An example of this is Toyota's high quality production with minimal inventory resulting in parts arriving "just-in-time" from outside suppliers. Toyota suppliers benefit by developing TPS methods that increase their competitiveness with all their customers.

TPS is also practiced at Toyota's Georgetown tool shop. The shop "empowers" its employees on the shop floor and engages them in making key decisions. This is accomplished, for example, through "visual management" methods that communicate shop performance to every employee. Routine, "continuous improvement" meetings are held where every employee offers ideas on improving performance. These methods offer a unique perspective on efficient management practices that succeed even in a complex production process like tooling.

In the auto industry, Henry Ford is recognized for developing the assembly line and mass production, while Toyota is credited with the TPS process. TPS eliminates waste by focusing systemically on product design, product development, manufacturing and supply chain processes. It is synonymous with efficiency, flexibility, high quality and respect for the individual employee.

What is special about Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky is its major economic impact on the region, and the United States, as well as its willingness to share one of the world's crown jewels of manufacturing systems with suppliers, helping them develop their competitiveness outside the Toyota system.

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