The Engineers Open the Window on the Big World Out There

It’s often noted that American carmakers are hobbled by their obligations to pay health care “legacy costs” to their ranks of retirees. Toyota has only about 1,600 retirees in the U.S., and many of its factories have never been successfully organized by a union. Yet Toyota has other strategic advantages too. For one thing, its enormous cash reserves allow it to spend billions on the pursuit of market share in the U.S. — designing a new car or significantly redesigning an old one usually costs $1 billion, and building a new plant costs between $1 billion and $2 billion — and at the same The Engineers Open the Window on the Big World Out There time to think deeply about where society will be in 20 years.

These two pursuits, which might appear contradictory, actually reinforce each other. “Toyota has always gone where the money is, and there’s money in trucks,” says John Casesa, an industry consultant and a former automotive analyst at Merrill Lynch. “This is a company that has, as its mission, to serve any customer. But the other reality is that you’ve got to make a lot of money to develop the research and development for hybrids.” Toyota spends $20 million a day, Jim Press told me, on research The Engineers Open the Window on the Big World Out There and factories. “They are outspending G.M. in R.&D., product development and capital spending,” says Sean McAlinden, an economist at the Center for Automotive Research, a not-for-profit consulting firm in Ann Arbor. “If that trend continues, we’re dead. The problem is, suppose we made a car” as good as a Toyota. “Then we only have a car as good as they do. It’s not just about catching up, or getting into the game. You’ve got to get ahead somehow. But how?”

Toyota’s chief engineers consider it their responsibility to begin a design (or a redesign The Engineers Open the Window on the Big World Out There) by going out and seeing for themselves — the term within Toyota is genchi genbutsu — what customers want in a car or a truck and how any current versions come up short. This quest can sometimes seem Arthurian, with chief engineers leading lonely and gallant expeditions in an attempt to figure out how to beat the competition. Most extreme, perhaps, was the task Yuji Yokoya set for himself when he was asked to redesign the Sienna minivan. He decided he would drive the Sienna (and other minivans) in every American state, every Canadian province and most of The Engineers Open the Window on the Big World Out There Mexico. Yokoya at one point decided to visit a tiny and remote Canadian town, Rankin Inlet, in Nunavut, near the Arctic Circle. He flew there in a small plane, borrowed a minivan from a Rankin Inlet taxi driver and drove around for a few minutes (there were very few roads). The point of all this to and fro, Jeff Liker says, was to test different vans — on ice, in wind, on highways and city streets — and make Toyota’s superior. Curiously, even when his three-year, 53,000-mile journey was finished, Yokoya could not stop. One person at Toyota told me The Engineers Open the Window on the Big World Out There he bumped into him at a hotel in the middle of Death Valley, Calif., after the new Sienna came out in 2004. Apparently, Yokoya wanted to see how his redesigned van was handling in the desert.

When I spoke not long ago with the Tundra’s chief engineer, Yuichiro Obu, and its project manager, Mark Schrage, both of whom work in Ann Arbor, they characterized their research for the Tundra as quite unlike what was done for the Sienna. The way a farmer uses a truck is different from the way a construction worker does; preferences in Texas (for two-wheel drive The Engineers Open the Window on the Big World Out There) differ from those in Montana (for four-wheel drive). Truck drivers have diverse needs in terms of horsepower and torque, since they carry different payloads on different terrain. They also have variable needs when it comes to cab size (seating between two and five people) and fuel economy (depending on the length of a commute). In August 2002, Obu and his team began visiting different regions of the U.S.; they went to logging camps, horse farms, factories and construction sites to meet with truck owners. By asking them face to face about their needs, Obu and Schrage sought to The Engineers Open the Window on the Big World Out There understand preferences for towing capacity and power; by silently observing them at work, they learned things about the ideal placement of the gear shifter, for instance, or that the door handle and radio knobs should be extra large, because pickup owners often wear work gloves all day.

Obu’s team, which drew on hundreds of engineers, ultimately produced a pickup model with 31 variations that include engines, wheelbases and cabs of different sizes. Design engineers, however, cannot simply create the best truck they can; they need to create the best truck that can be built in a big The Engineers Open the Window on the Big World Out There factory. In other words, Tundra’s design engineers had to confer with Tundra’s manufacturing engineers at every step of the way to create a truck — or 31 trucks, really — that could be assembled efficiently and systematically. To that end, Toyota spent $1.28 billion to build its San Antonio plant; it has the capacity to produce about 200,000 vehicles a year. The company considers it one of the most advanced manufacturing plants in the world.


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