In the battle for electric vehicles, Toyota is relying on new technologies and old-fashioned thinking

By David Dolan

TOYOTA CITY, Japan (Reuters) – At factories in Japan’s industrial heartland, Toyota is relying on self-driving assembly lines, massive die casting and even old-fashioned hand polishing to make up for lost ground in battery-electric vehicles.

The world’s top-selling automaker believes it can close the gap with Tesla and others by combining new technologies with the famous lean production methods it has used for decades to eliminate inefficiencies, including extra costs, from manufacturing.

The automaker gave a glimpse of its latest advancements, some of them for the first time, during a factory tour in central Japan last week. Examples of frugal ingenuity were also shown, such as a technique that can produce high-gloss bumpers without paint. The shape is hand polished to a high shine and gives the bumper its shine.

Elsewhere, three-decades-old parts-processing equipment can now operate at night and on weekends after being automated using robotics and 3D modeling. These improvements have tripled equipment productivity, according to Toyota.

“The strength of Toyota manufacturing lies in our ability to respond to changing times,” Chief Product Officer Kazuaki Shingo told reporters on the tour.

He pointed to the engineering and technology expertise embedded in “TPS,” short for the Toyota Production System.

Toyota revolutionized modern manufacturing with its system of lean production, just-in-time delivery, and “Kanban” workflow organization. His methods have since been adopted by everyone from hospitals to software companies and widely studied in business schools and boardrooms around the world.

A relentless focus on continuous improvement and cost reduction helped Toyota rise from postwar upstart to global giant. But in battery electric vehicles, it has been eclipsed by another tireless innovator, Tesla, which leveraged its own efficiency improvements to achieve market-leading profitability.

Under new Chief Executive Koji Sato, Toyota in June announced an ambitious plan to expand battery-powered electric vehicles, a major shift after years of criticism that the maker of the industry-leading hybrid Prius had been slow to transition to all-electric technology.

The Japanese automaker accounted for only about 0.3% of the global electric vehicle market in 2022, Goldman Sachs said in June, calling increased supply a “missing piece” in its offering.

It’s not the only automaker grappling with the challenges of transitioning to electric vehicles. Detroit’s three major automakers have cited competitive pressure from Tesla as they pushed back against wage demands from the United Auto Workers union, which led to an unprecedented simultaneous strike last week.


One innovation that Toyota highlights is its self-driving production lines, where electric vehicles are guided through the assembly line by sensors. The technology eliminates the need for conveyors, a major cost factor in the automotive assembly process, and allows for greater flexibility in production lines.

At one demonstration, electric cars drove forward without roofs so that parts could be inserted into them. A Fanuc robotic arm lowered the car seats into the bed of the electric vehicle. Nearby, an autonomous forklift picked up more seats from a container.

Toyota also showed off a prototype of Tesla’s “Gigacasting” die-casting technology, which can produce aluminum parts far larger than anything previously used in automotive manufacturing.

Like Tesla, Toyota says it will produce electric vehicles in modular sections, reducing the number of parts. But it also points to our own innovations. Since we have been working with die casting for years, molds have been developed that can be quickly replaced, which is always necessary in gigacasting.

According to Toyota, this reduces mold change time to 20 minutes, compared to 24 hours normally. A productivity increase of 20% is expected.

The automaker has also introduced a self-driving transport robot at the Motomachi plant in Toyota City that carries new vehicles across a 40,000-square-meter parking lot – a task usually completed by drivers before loading cars onto transport vehicles.

Truck drivers travel an average of 8 km (5 miles) per day to retrieve cars, adding to driving time and increasing physical strain in a job with high turnover.

The automaker said it wants to have 10 of the robots operating at Motomachi by next year and will consider additional plants after that. It could also sell the robots to other companies.

(Reporting by David Dolan; Editing by Jamie Freed) In the battle for electric vehicles, Toyota is relying on new technologies and old-fashioned thinking

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