To build its first hybrid vehicle in North America this year, Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky engaged engineers and line workers in three countries to find ways to knock cost out of the high-volume Camry.
It also had to speed up portions of the assembly line and slow down other parts without interfering with overall line speed.
That task took Gary Convis and his Georgetown, Ky., manufacturing team on a year-long research program.
Convis, president of the Kentucky manufacturing subsidiary, met with engineers from other Camry factories in Japan and China to help solve an automaking puzzle:
How do you insert a model variation onto an existing production line when it requires at least 300 different parts and processes?
The international meetings amounted to an idea swap, with many of the proposals coming from Toyota line workers in all three countries.
"Those of us who've been building the Camry for a while were able to bring ideas to them," Convis says of the international meetings. "But a lot of the ideas came from the people in our plant."
The solutions will be put to the test in October when the first Camry Hybrid emerges from the Georgetown, Ky., car plant. Toyota expects to build about 4,000 Camry Hybrids a month in Kentucky, where it currently turns out Camrys at the rate of 30,000 a month.
Toyota surprised many last year when it said that adding the hybrid-engine model would cost only $10 million. But the minuscule investment did not reflect the amount of brainwork required to make it happen.
Among the solutions:
>> Toyota process engineers created more than a dozen "bypasses" on the Camry line. The detours allow for the hybrid version to move off line for specific jobs that require more time than their equivalent job on the standard Camry.
>> To make up for the detours, engineers changed several Camry components to make them faster to install. The front door hinge used to require a team member to put four screws into their precise spot. Now the hinge will come with the screws already positioned for installation.
>> Curtain side airbags can be snapped into place, speeding up an old process that required assemblers to grope around under the door sills.
>> Inner door locks will now be subassembled off-line for faster installation.
>> Toyota redesigned the hybrid's battery air-blower and cooler but then had to change the way it is installed into a vehicle. Instead of reaching through the rear door for installation, as they would on other hybrid vehicles, line workers now will install the system faster by going through the trunk.
>> Toyota retrieved the production of body rocker panels from an outside supplier to produce in-house. The change required Georgetown to improve efficiency at its paint and injection-molding operations, and to hire more than 30 employees. But after all that, the move will still earn Toyota a net savings of $10 per Camry.
At 400,000 Camrys a year, that change alone will amount to savings of about $4 million annually for the plant.
"These ideas came from all over," Convis says. "That's what's enabling us to bring this new model out."