In the heart of Kentucky, amid rolling bluegrass hills and miles of neat white plank fences, sits the machine that threatens the three pillars of Detroit.
Under the roof of Toyota Motor's largest manufacturing facility in North America, the headlights flash and the horn blasts on a new Camry, Avalon or Solara rolling off the assembly line every 55 seconds. Its journey began just 20 hours earlier, when sheets were cut from a 24-ton coil of steel and stamped by giant machines into body parts. Robots weld the stamped parts into the naked frame of car bodies, which are then hung on an overhead conveyor system to begin a Disney-like ride through 7.5 million square feet of factory floor (the equivalent of 156 football fields).
Employeessome 7,000 at this plant alonehave exactly 55 seconds to install engine components, brakes, dashboards, windows, doors or some other piece of the car puzzle before it is transported to the next stage of the assembly line on the overhead conveyor. Driverless carts ferry parts just-in-time to assembly stations so inventory doesn't pile up, and everywhere, overhead signs, plasma screens and musical jingles alert team leaders to production status or problems on the assembly line.
In the wake of recalls and other quality issues, the company last month said that it was looking at possibly delaying some models. Still, what Toyota has accomplished over the years has been widely admired by manufacturing and information-technology experts.
In factories around the globe, from Toyota City, Japan, to this one in Georgetown, Ky., Toyota consistently produces higher-quality cars, with fewer worker-hours, lower inventory and fewer defects, than any other competitor. The engine behind its success, say insiders and outsiders alike, is the Toyota Production System (TPS), a set of principles, philosophies and business processes to enable the leanest manufacturing.