Truck Camper Magazine tours the Toyota Motor Manufacturing Texas (TMMTX) plant in San Antonio, Texas. See truck bodies grabbed by Godzilla and Tacomas and Tundras made by man, machine, and a precision-guided fleet of roving robots.
In the spring of 2014, we contacted Toyota Motor North America to request a tour of the Toyota Motor Manufacturing Texas (TMMTX) plant in San Antonio, Texas. Specifically, we asked for an extended guided tour with unrestricted photography access for a feature story in Truck Camper Magazine.
Our original request was denied on several grounds. First, we hadn’t allowed for enough time for the required approval process. Toyota advised us to resubmit our request at least 90-days in advance the next time we would be in Texas.
Second, it was almost unheard of for outside media to be granted unrestricted photography access. We later learned that many major media outlets had been denied photography access and were provided Toyota approved photography for their visits.
Fast forward to the spring of 2017. We were scheduled to tour Capri Campers in Bluff Dale, Texas and attend the Texas Truck Camper Rally. Since we were already going to Texas, we once again engaged Toyota for a factory tour.
This time our request was granted, with two restrictions. I had to complete a Toyota security camera pass application right down to the camera model and serial number. The pass was only for my Nikon DSLR as no camera phones are allowed.
Additionally, there was a detailed safety dress code for the plant; no skirts, no shorts, no exposed midriffs, and no heels taller than one-inch. Well there goes the standard Truck Camper Magazine uniform!
1 Lone Star Pass
With the required forms submitted and the Stilettos safely back at the ranch, we arrived at 1 Lone Star Pass in San Antonio, Texas on April 3rd, 2017. After winding our way around the 2,000 acre Toyota Motor Manufacturing Texas (TMMTX) complex, we parked towards the back of the visitor’s center.
A few minutes later we were greeted by Melissa Sparks, External Media Affairs for Toyota Motor North America. Melissa handed me a laminated, signed, and date-restricted camera security pass with my full name and aforementioned camera serial number. Then she said, “If anyone asks you about your camera, show them this.” That’s right people. TCM got a unrestricted photo pass!
Melissa then had us board a 2017 Toyota Tundra, one of many Toyota trucks used around the TMMTX facility. She explained that these trucks were referred to as, “scrap” or text vehicles and had no VIN numbers.
Above: The TMMTX campus – photo provided by Toyota Motor North America
About thirty seconds later we were driving past the Toyota Family Heath Center, an on-site medical group practice for Toyota employees and their dependents including primary care, optical, dental, physical therapy, and a pharmacy.
The fact that Toyota made a medical facility part of their facility really impressed us. The $5 co-pay completely blew us away. If every major company took this forward-thinking approach to health care in the United States, we would have a much better health care situation today.
Two Story Truck Trains
The next stop on our tour was the shipping yard. Here the Toyota Tacomas and Tundras are loaded onto two-story rail cars and trucks for distribution throughout the United States and Canada. About 90-percent are shipped by rail.
As we drove towards the main assembly building, we passed dozens of on-site suppliers. The Toyota Texas Truck Plant was the first automotive facility to position suppliers on the same grounds as the main assembly plant.
These automotive suppliers manufacture door glass, seats, headliners, door panels, steering wheels, switches, carpet, windshields, fuel tanks, exhaust systems, stamped parts, tire and wheel assemblies, and more. This on-site supplier integration saves time and shipping costs, improves overall manufacturing efficiency, and allows for a better partnership between the suppliers and Toyota.
Another thing we noticed on the Toyota campus was a lot of large empty lots surrounding the various buildings. Melissa explained that Toyota purposefully left these empty lots for future expansion. Japanese companies are well known for their long term planning sometimes stretching decades into the future.
Stop That Guy With The Camera!
The main entrance to the main assembly building looks more like a large hotel lobby entrance than your typical automotive factory. Having been to a few other major automotive factories, they don’t normally look like this.
Once in the door, the security guys immediately noticed my Nikon. Thankfully, Melissa quickly explained that I had a one-day camera pass. No need to tackle the magazine publisher. He’s legit!
Melissa then introduced us to Mario Lozoya, Director of Government Relations and External Affairs for Toyota North America. Mario and Melissa then led us to a room off the main entrance to be fitted with steel tipped shoes, hard hats, safety glasses, and belt-buckle covers. This last item was not my favorite fashion accessory of the day.
The Blue Double-Doors
From there we walked past the 1-millionth Toyota Tundra produced at TMMTX, through blue double-doors, and into the truck plant. We were finally in the building.
The first thing we saw were a series of large monitors displaying production data for the plant. We were asked not to show this information, but essentially these screens detailed where the plant was in efficiency and other critical metrics, over time.
The fact that Toyota puts this information upfront for all employees to see and study is an important part of the Toyota culture. They strongly believe in measuring every facet of efficiency, and then empowering the entire workforce with this information.
Stop, Look, and Point
Walking paths are clearly defined throughout the plant. When you’re about to cross an area used by delivery vehicles, forklifts, and automated robotics, you find a white circle like the one pictured above.
At these white circles, Toyota team members stop and physically point and look towards the left, right, and straight ahead before proceeding. At first it seems really weird to have grown adults stopping, pointing, and looking before walking across a pathway. Everyone in the plant follows this safety protocol no matter their rank. It’s the law at Toyota.
“It does seem funny at first,” explained Melissa. “But it’s how we prevent our team members from stepping out in front of a robot or vehicle.” She went on to reveal that she’s caught herself pointing and looking at the end of grocery store aisles and parking lot crossways.
Speaking of robots, they were everywhere at Toyota.
The first robots we saw looked like long industrial skateboards emblazoned with the Toyota logo and blinking away with red and green lights.
These skateboard robots were ferrying around stamped Tacoma body panels.
As a life-long fan of science fiction, it was surreal to see these seemingly autonomous robots go about their business.
Melissa stated that the robots were following tracks laid into the floor and delivering parts to the production line just-in-time. This automated and reliable just-in-time delivery eliminates the need for storing inventory inside the plant.
Progressing deeper into the plant, we asked about where we might see metal stamping and welding. Mario answered that those processes were 100-percent robotically controlled and inaccessible for photography. This was disappointing, but it’s Toyota’s plant, and rules.
Dashboards In a Dash
Mario then proceeded to where the dashboards are installed.
Along side the production line, more skateboard-like robots delivered the exact right dashboard, to the exact right place, at the exact right time.
The entire factory runs like a Swiss watch; robotic and human gears intermeshing in perfect rhythm. It works so well that you almost don’t appreciate it.
As we observed, human Toyota team members used robotic arms to lift the dashboards off their robot cradles and smoothly guide the dashboards to a truck on the production line for installation.
When a dashboard was removed from a cradle, that robot sped away and another robot pulled up with the next dashboard. Tic-Toc, Tic-Toc.
Godzilla – King of the Monsters!
Centrally located in the Toyota factory is the largest robot in the plant; a giant robotic arm that picks up freshly welded truck cabs from the second story and gently lowers them onto the first floor production line.
Watching Godzilla go about its routine is beautiful and a bit terrifying. The robot’s motion is as fluid and graceful as it is direct.
As you watch Godzilla effortlessly pick up truck cabs that weigh north of 1,000 pounds, you wonder what all that power could do unleashed on the streets of San Antonio.
Look out Texas! Run for your lives!
Immediately following Godzilla, the unpainted truck cabs enter a shine bay and are thoroughly inspected prior to paint. This continues the pattern of man and machine working side-by-side to serve the ultimate goals of quality and efficiency.
Brass Knuckle Vending Machine
As we were walking through the plant, an odd vending machine caught our attention. Usually when you see a vending machine in a factory it’s dispensing candy and soda pop. Well, we found this vending machine in the Toyota plant offering brass knuckle safety gloves.
At first blush, brass knuckle gloves sound more like something Johnny Bananas and Frankie Fingers would wear to a mob hit than anything they might need at Toyota.
As turns out brass knuckle gloves are light weight, highly flexible, and cut-resistant safety gloves. From our own observation, the majority of production line team members wear these special gloves.
Engine and Transmission
Heads up! Big heavy things regularly appear and drop out the ceiling at Toyota. One of the more impressive examples are the truck engine and transmission assemblies.
About ten feet above the production line, yellow gate doors open allowing a truck engine and transmission assembly to descend directly over a corresponding truck chassis.
Once hovering above the chassis, a two man team guides the engine and transmission into the truck chassis. The next station inspects the installation and secures the engine and transmission into place.
Trucks are assembled in two large sections; an upper section (truck cab and bed), and a lower section (chassis, transmission, and engine).
These two sections run on separate production lines and then are married together by an enormous two-story robot. All of this precision flying is done as the truck moves down the production line.
“Do you 2017 Barcelona Red Metallic Tacoma and bed take this truck chassis, transmission, and engine to be your lawfully wedded underbody?”
I took about 35 photos of the marriage ceremony and assembled them into the animated GIF/video above. Note how the upper section is brought down from the second floor to meet the lower section in a series of smooth motions.
It’s amazing that the right cab and bed always marry the right chassis, transmission, and engine. No prenup necessary.
Wheels and Tires On
Another area where man and robot work hand-in-machine together is the wheel and tire installation. The first amazing fact is how the right wheel and tire are delivered down a tire elevator as the truck arrives on the production line.
The wheel and tire are then picked up by a human Toyota team member using a robotic arm and guided towards the next truck as it moves down the line. Notice the truck is elevated for efficiency and ergonomic comfort for the human workers.
Once the wheel and tire is properly placed, the same Toyota team member guides a specialized robot that precisely tightens the wheel bolts.
This wheel tightening robot moves with the truck down the production line tightening the bolts, and then back into position for the next truck. The whole process is beautifully orchestrated, like a dance between man and machine.
The complexity of the landscape within the plant is often mesmerizing. Just as you’re getting accustomed to robots and humans working hand-in-machine, you notice the myriad of truck bodies, seats, doors, and other truck elements moving along the ceiling, raised cat walks, and between the production lines on computer controlled conveyor systems.
Final Inspection and Truck Whacking
As the Tundras and Tacomas roll toward the end of the production line, they are meticulously inspected from hood to tailgate.
To check various exterior tolerances, the team uses calibrated foam wands that reveal any sheet metal or body fitting that is out of specification.
The team also uses their sense of touch and hearing opening and closing the hood, cab doors, and tailgate feeling and listening for an incorrect fit. If you open and close a Tundra hood a few thousand times, you know exactly what that’s supposed to feel and sound like.
To make minor adjustments to a hood or door installation, the team uses soft rubber mallets to give exactly the right tap at the exactly the right place to put a truck into perfect alignment. If these guys ever get tired of trucks, they’d make great chiropractors.
At the very end of the production line is an area Melissa described as the Truck Hospital. Here trucks that did not pass final inspection are held, have their issues addressed, and are then re-inspected.
Speaking of inspection, we saw an amazing number of shine bays at Toyota. Some, like the shine bay shown above, are off the production line and designed for a whole truck inspection.
Others exist on the production line and focus on various aspects of the truck; underbody, sheet metal, etc.
Music On the Line
A few times during our tour we heard music playing in the factory. This wasn’t exactly Beethoven, but rather melodic computer tones. Melissa said this music only plays when the production line has been halted somewhere in the plant. This happens when a team member recognizes an issue on the production line.
The employees are encouraged to stop the line anytime they see a quality control issue. These incidents are part of Toyota’s renown quality-control practices and are later studied for opportunities to improve.
Before we left the production line, Melissa took us into a room just off the factory floor with hundreds of charts and graphs tracking these and other factory efficiency information sources. Every slice of data in that room was displayed visually for quick analysis. Team leaders gather around these charts and graphs daily to discuss ways to improve.
As a side note, we didn’t hear any other music playing on the production line. In most RV factories, the team is permitted to play classic rock or whatever gets them through the day. Not at Toyota.
The Kaizen Lab
Towards the back of the plant Melissa showed us an area devoted to Kaizen – the Japanese word meaning “constant improvement”.
This research and development laboratory studies the efficiency data, quality control reports, work station ergonomics, and team feedback and finds ways to constantly improve quality, efficiency, safety, and worker comfort. Kaizen is literally applied to all functions of management and production at Toyota.
Much of what you find at Toyota is the direct result of their dedication to Kaizen – from the robots moving materials throughout the plant to cradles and conveyor systems that bring a work process to exactly the right height for a team member. Melissa explained that Toyota employees are encouraged to find Kaizen approaches to everything they do, even the arrangement of their desks.
The totality of Kaizen really comes into focus when you realize that every Toyota factory has a Kaizen laboratory and has been working on continuous improvement – and sharing their Kaizen research with other Toyota factories – for decades.
Imagine if the RV industry adopted Kaizen as deeply as Toyota. How much better would the quality, efficiency, and profitability of the RV industry be today?
To be fair, some RV manufacturers have embraced elements of what is commonly referred to as the Toyota Method or Toyota Production System (TPS). The most popular TPS concepts within the RV space are just in time production and lean manufacturing.
The difference between what some RV manufacturers practice and what Toyota practices is in the depth, breadth, and culture. Where the RV industry might apply a few elements of TPS when it’s practical to do so, Toyota applies it to every facet of management and production every day.
Thank You, Toyota!
Above: Melissa Sparks of Toyota Motor North America and Angela White of TCM
We want to thank Mario Lozoya and Melissa Sparks of Toyota Motor North America for their time and effort. They went out of their way to give us an extended private tour of the TMMTX facility and were a fountain of helpful information before, during, and after our visit. Thank you!