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Toyota Balances Technology & Workers At Lexus Plant

From rigorous employee tests to eliminating gaps in car production, Japanese plant looks to the next level.

TAHARA, Japan (AP) - Swiveling robot cameras check for scratches and engines are assembled in dust-free rooms at this Toyota plant that houses its flagship production line for Lexus luxury models.

But the indisputable stars of the Tahara plant are the so-called ''master craftsmen,'' the 2,700 veteran workers whose eyes are sharp enough to catch minuscule errors even robots and computers miss, all to ensure Lexus' top-notch quality.

Except for the Lexus RX produced in Canada, Toyota Motor Corp. produces all Lexus models in Japan—the nation that the company acknowledges offers the best in quality manufacturing. 

Toyota Senior Managing Director Shoji Ikawa said production quality, such as eliminating gaps between parts to a sliver, attained with the first-generation Lexus is now commonplace in Toyota's regular cars such as the Corolla.

The ongoing pursuit for ever higher excellence needed for the Lexus will always be tackled at a Japan plant, he said.

''We will always be trying to attain the next level,'' he told reporters after a rare tour of the plant Thursday. ''And we will continue to do that in Japan.''

At the factory, west of Tokyo, which makes LS, GS and IS Lexus models, cameras zipping around on robotic arms take more than 1,000 images of each car to check digitally for imperfections. Then corners and curves are examined by the human eye for more fine-tuning.

The alignment of a car when parts are put together has been perfected to such a degree that when a Lexus driver lets go of the steering wheel at 100 kph (62 mph) for 100 meters, the car will veer just 25 centimeters (10 inches), rather than the usual 75 centimeters (30 inches), Toyota says.

Like a judo or karate martial arts class, the plant has a ''dojo,'' or training studio, where workers are taught how to gauge proper bolt-tightening by the buzz of the mechanized screwdriver, and how to pat the parts into the car on the line with the right touch, like an acupuncturist at work.

Reporters watched employees in an adjacent room claw at rubbery nets to strengthen their fingers. In another exercise, they lined up dozens of pawns of barely discernible varying shades to train sensibilities to color.

Workers pass tests that measure technique to win promotion from the initial third grade, which has 1,800 Lexus workers, to second grade with 600 workers, and to top grade with only 300 workers.

The employees also get a dosage of what's called ''mind training,'' in which workers sit in classrooms to learn about the Lexus concept and the approach to flawless production.

They do sit-ups and work out on cycling machines to stay in shape to do the job right, said Takahiro Iwase, who heads the Tahara plant.

''Our conclusion was that there can be no how-to manual to master the Lexus production method,'' he said. ''The only way is to build the right mind-set.''

That Zen-like concentration on quality is typical of Toyota, which produced more vehicles globally in the first quarter than any other company, surpassing General Motors Corp. for the first time.

Still, as Toyota grows, President Katsuaki Watanabe has repeatedly expressed concerns quality controls are slipping amid a surge in recalls.

Toyota officials leading the tour looked very serious when they explained that nurturing sensibilities and good taste in workers was essential for the ''fusion of cutting edge engineering and master craftsmanship'' that's at the root of Lexus production.

Toyota also said demand for its latest hybrid Lexus models—which includes the world's priciest hybrid—has been stronger than expected.

Since the May 17 launch date, the company has received 5,300 orders for the LS600h and LS600hL, far above the monthly target for 300 vehicles. The most expensive version sells for 15 million yen (US$122,000; euro90,600). The models are planned for overseas sales later this year.

More affordable Lexus models go for about half that price or less.

Lexus consistently ranks high in consumer satisfaction surveys and was second overall after Porsche in this year's annual J.D. Power and Associates initial quality rankings, which measures satisfaction after three months of ownership.

Toyota's strong profitability is evidence of the success of its production methods centered around eliminating waste, matching manufacturing with demand and designing cars to maximize production efficiency, said Anand Sharma, manufacturing expert and co-founder of TBM Consulting Group.

''This production system is proven,'' he said, adding that the often blamed burden of legacy costs on U.S. automakers doesn't account entirely for Toyota's better production efficiency.

''Companies that apply the same system that Toyota has used have really resulted in growth over their competition,'' he said.