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Toyota Motor Corp.’s plant in Tahara, Aichi Prefecture, was forced to suspend production for several days a month from April to June as demand plunged amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But during that time, Toyota engineers at the plant weren’t just sitting on their hands. They made use of the time to work on maintenance and update equipment, which can’t be done when the production lines are in operation.

In early July, the Tahara plant came back to life after ending the period of reduced production amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under a banner that said, “One team to create and nurture a brilliant line,” workers were preparing to launch a manufacturing line to produce battery packs for hybrid cars, becoming Toyota’s first vehicle assembly plant with such a line.

Production of battery packs, which is scheduled to start in October, is a great new business opportunity for the plant.

Masumi Okayama, 63, dubbed “Mr. Battery” by his colleagues for his rich experience in the field, said, “As far as this project is concerned, the halt in the plant’s production had nothing but a positive impact.”

The Tahara plant, which produces cars such as the Land Cruiser and Lexus mainly for overseas markets, was hit hard by the global spread of novel coronavirus infections and was forced to establish days of no operation and halt night shifts.

Many Toyota workers in other fields, including those in charge of supporting overseas operations or car painting experts, volunteered to help with the battery project, thinking it would be more worthwhile to spend the period of production cuts by doing what they can do instead of remaining idle.

They dismantled the already constructed battery production line, repainted the floors and reorganized electric wiring. These processes are essential for preventing accidents and fires but tend to be put off due to time and personnel constraints when the factory is under regular operation.

Around the same time, those in the vehicle production sections created a manual for inspecting production equipment and trained workers to inspect machines themselves. Such inspections have usually been conducted by maintenance specialists, but there has been a shortage of such people along with the increase of automated machines.

Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda said that compared with the time immediately after the 2008 global financial crisis, employees acted more spontaneously without management having to offer priorities. | REUTERS
Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda said that compared with the time immediately after the 2008 global financial crisis, employees acted more spontaneously without management having to offer priorities. | REUTERS

Keiichi Sakamoto, 40, in charge of welding auto bodies, said, “We knew beforehand the schedule of nonoperation days, so we decided among our members how to proceed (with inspections).”

“Since people in other fields started engaging in maintenance, we could use the time created to set up a team to upgrade old equipment,” said Yuta Nozaki, 35, who specializes in maintenance works.

Workers also conducted thorough improvements of everyday work procedures. “It was an opportunity for us to walk through the halted lines and inspect every corner,” said Daisuke Yoshizawa, 39, of the quality management section.

People from different sections gathered and gave a total of 360 improvement suggestions, including reducing excessive use of protection film sheets for preventing scratches during work and changing the structure of a hose used in a device that lets air into engines.

“When production resumed to a normal level, we wanted to manufacture in a better way, rather than doing what we have been previously doing,” said Yoshizawa.

Workers at the Tahara plant, many of whom are Tahara natives, also conducted activities to help the local community, weeding the grounds of nursery, elementary and junior high schools in the district and cleaning gutters.

Upon receiving reports of such activities, Toyota President Akio Toyoda, 64, said that compared with the time immediately after the 2008 global financial crisis, employees acted more spontaneously without management having to offer priorities.

The Tahara plant, which has been facing a reduction in production in recent years, leading to concerns that it might become subject to restructuring, has been making efforts to survive, including launching a new production line for the Lexus NX crossover utility vehicle last year.

“Unless we are constantly conscious about creating jobs ourselves, we won’t be able to react quickly when something happens,” said Takahiro Imura, 62, who heads the plant.

Through tackling COVID-19, “we are seeing that our continuous efforts and strengthened team work are starting to bear fruit,” Imura said.

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Aug. 27.

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