Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Toyota Plant

We now leave the pictorial portion to go to Toyota. You can't take pictures so I made a lot of sketches instead. We have a guide who has the tour process down and leads us around to various stations and tells us about the plant. The first thing you notice is how clean everything is. The second is how visual and audio are used to help track, display and communicate. Large boards are everywhere explaining what parts of the plant are for, Andon boards to show status on production including incidents, cars on assembly lines and then some large random cartoon like billboards of children fishing, skiing etc. I asked what the latter were for and were told "oh, for fun!". Good enough.

The whole place is one large choreography. It's like going to "Toyota the musical" and I also feel like I've stepped into Ompa Loompa land (Willy Wonkas Chocolate factory). It's a little surreal and the music is fairly constant. By music I mean the small world (in this case slightly tinny sounding Fur Elise amongst other gems) soundtrack. Music is used for a couple of things. One is to sound if a machine/vehicle is backing up, others are unique to each assembly line to indicate if there are problems. If an issue is spotted or automatically found the sound will go off, and lights will flash and dashboards (Andon boards) will update. Yellow signifies a problem is found and if it is not resolved before the vehicle reaches the next station then the light will turn red. This can trigger the "stop the line" affect we have heard a lot about.

They have little carts moving all over the place. The factory is half man half machine in action and all seem to act in harmony. They use carts to carry all the supplies such as drills, screws etc and when these are emptied they go through a cleaning machine on the floor. They clean up as they go everywhere (refactoring anyone?).

They have cables running over the heads of the workers that can be pulled if issues are spotted, one on each side above the conveyor belts. Interestingly the size of each assembly line can be shortened which can create more or less buffer to even out the work flow.

On the hood/bonnet of a car is a Kanban card with all the car information. At the beginning when there is the shell and not much else an RFID box is fitted beneath the car. This contains and tracks all the specifications for what the car needs to have added and has already had done. This moves to the roof later on. It helps the robots figure out what to do. I hope they put in the Asimov mod as it is all way too smart to be left alone otherwise.

They have such cool little ways of moving things around. Little flat dollies scuttle under the main carts with supplies (doors etc) on rails if they aren't been used to take the carts further down. Apparently they are expensive to keep under the carts all the time so they shoot where needed as needed, just in time as it were.

Lots of little inspirational messages appear on the wall such as "Good thinking, Good product".

On the assembly lines a range of different cars flow through fairly seamlessly. One is a minivan, another a car thing (ok I'm not good with all the models but imagine other car things and you will be fine), and no two in the same model and colour appear yet. The workers attaching the doors fit them in different ways but do it so effortlessly and everything is coordinated so well. We have seen this from the way people in stores make food, package items etc. It seems to be a national sport. We spot what we think are A3's on the wall behind the workers but it could also be pictures of their Robot king for all we know.

One thing I start to see everywhere is themes appearing in the design of practical items. For example the Andon board (think a dashboard with information on the assembly line) is shaped like a car with a clock fitted where one wheel is and another blank wheel shape used to balance it up. Ok so you don't have to do this and can you imagine doing this in the US or somewhere just for the fun of it? I noticed on the way back to the hotel today that even the manhole on the street is designed with a Sumaria warrieor engraving. Bit elaborate for most public works departments.

Everything is colour coded and we will see this appear later when we speak to the Toyota software division. Colour and sound pervade and help signal without words or text what needs to happen. This is incredibly fast and part of their secret sauce (ok not so secret but I don't see many others doing this).

No comments: