Today I went on a Lean Construction class field trip to the Toyota-GM NUMMI plant factory in Fremont. I understand that GM is the land owner/factory owner and the factory produces all Toyota products through its standard Toyota Production System. The plant produces the Tacoma, Accord, and all of America's Pontiac Vibes.
During the NUMMI tour, a few things seemed to stand out to me. At first I was a little taken aback by how busy and loud the production line seemed. When I inspected it further as the tour went on, I could see how the employees were working at a comfortable pace (takt time).
The pace was well dictated by the flow of the pieces, but many little facets of the workspace contributed to the worker comfort and constant pace. One of these facets was the arrangement of worker tools, which hung overhead on a track that were incredibly easy to access and get rid of without losing organization. The tour guide constantly reinforced ergonomics. The only station where this seemed to be a problem was when workers had to install items underneath the car, and fighting gravity meant workers rotated from this station every 2 hours.
It was nice to see the kanban system in real time. NUMMI used plastic crates on roller tracks next to each worker station, and when the crates got low, or empty crates stacked up, more crates would come for a specific part.
Automated machines were a huge part of the production process, more than I had imagined. It made me wonder how much maintenance was required for the robots, and how often this disrupted the system. This is especially true for the automated vehicles that carried parts throughout the factory by following magnetic strips. I could see those creating serious problems, but knowing that Toyota is very careful of what technology they incorporate into production makes me think this isn’t the case.
The stamping process was also paused while we were there, and it was not clearly explained why. Talking with some of the other students that went with me, we thought it was maybe to insure inventory did not build up too much. Still, this seems weird to me, as Toyota is very focused on leveling out production and insuring that the pace is kept as long as problems do not need to be solved in the line.
Other than that it was apparent American Toyota factories were seeing a downturn in production, and it seemed the contracted workers were feeling the effects as our tour guide was working his last day dude to “economics.” Either way, it was a fun experience and well worth it.