Analysis: Toyota shifts resources to U.S., positioning Ann Arbor area engineering center for growth
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Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
The move comes as Toyota is trying to rehabilitate its image on quality in the aftermath of a recall crisis in 2010.
The automaker, which employs about 1,100 people at the Toyota Technical Center’s campuses in York Township and Ann Arbor Township, used the two-day press event to discuss its investments in safety research and U.S. product development.
The investments reflect a gradual move toward conducting more engineering in the U.S. — a shift that will directly benefit the company’s local workers.
Greg Bernas, one of three chief engineers at the Toyota Technical Center, described the center’s additional authority as a direct result of Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda’s push to align more engineering resources in the regions where the engineers’ products are sold.
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
“He wanted to make sure the decisions and the products and the features being incorporated into the vehicles were more in line with what customers want in that area of the world,” Bernas said. “It enabled us to work with our sales division here in North America and actually listen to the customer’s voice and incorporate things that we thought were important for the North American market.”
The Toyota Technical Center, which is typically handling engineering for two to three major vehicle projects at once, does not usually discuss what it’s currently working on. A notable exception was the company’s recent decision to jointly engineer the forthcoming electric version of the RAV4 sport-utility vehicle with high-profile Silicon Valley electric vehicle startup Tesla Motors.
In recent years, the Technical Center — which was not found to be responsible for the unintended acceleration issues that caused Toyota to recall millions of vehicles last year — has completed engineering for several vehicles, including the all-new Venza hatchback and the redesigned Sienna minivan.
On Wednesday, the company gave reporters a brief tour of the center’s York Township engineering facility. Photography was not allowed in most parts of the building, which maintains strict security parameters to ensure the secrecy of Toyota’s future product plans.
But the tour served as a reminder that Toyota is well positioned to expand its 155,000-square-foot York Township facility if the need presents itself. Toyota opened the expanded facility in 2008 after acquiring 690 acres from the state of Michigan in 2005. The automaker had the support of Gov. Jennifer Granholm, which successfully fought an Oakland County developer’s attempts to buy the property for more than twice Toyota’s offer. (Whether Toyota’s expansion stole precious engineering jobs from U.S. automakers — a claim made by General Motors adviser Bob Lutz — is a debate for another day.)
Three years after Toyota opened its new facility, further expansion seems plausible. Toyota’s shift of engineering resources toward the U.S. gives more firepower to the Toyota Technical Center. Meanwhile, in a largely overlooked element to this story, Toyota built its Technical Center specifically so that it could expand if it decides to do so at some point.
During a tour of the property, Toyota’s Ed Mantey pointed out that the Technical Center’s cafeteria was built at the edge of the building so that, if the facility is expanded in the future, the cafeteria would be positioned in the center of the building. The cafeteria’s wall, in fact, was designed so that it could be knocked down during a future expansion.
“It’s quite a large piece of property that can support future expansion,” said Mantey, a vice president for engineering design at Toyota Technical Center.
Meanwhile, Toyota’s press event offered insight into the company’s engineering and product development process. Highlights:
--The company is using a customized version of a software program called CATIA to conduct computer-aided design that allows engineers to create virtual models of vehicles before a physical prototype is assembled. The virtual prototyping has allowed Toyota engineers to accelerate product development and save costs. It also allows engineers to predict production problems that could arise when a product is manufactured.
A digital model of the Sienna minivan, shown to journalists in a video, displayed astonishing detail, such as grains in the car’s leather seats and white-capped waves on a video screen in the vehicles back seat. The company still has the ability to conduct rapid prototyping to test parts.
“As much as we can do virtually, the better we can make the product,” said Toyota’s Christopher DeMartini.
--When a vehicle is close to production, Ann Arbor area Toyota engineers travel to the manufacturing plant to work out problems. They’ll even step into the assembly line to “look with your own eyes” and see how the engineering translates into manufacturing, Mantey said.
--The Ann Arbor engineers are mainly responsible for the integration of the Apple iPod connection built into the Venza. In Japan, the iPod wasn’t as popular while the Venza was being developed, but “we thought it was extremely important” to have it in the U.S. version, Bernas said.
--The Technical Center recently adapted the new version of the 2012 Toyota Camry to integrate blind-spot monitoring capability. That was one of several “minor” projects the engineers have also handled. Those projects have included contributions for the Corolla, Sequoia, Tacoma, Matrix and Lexus RX350.