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With seats installed, 2020 Highlander crossovers progress on the assembly line. (Toyota)

Toyota improves ‘little things’ to refine 2020 Highlander manufacturing

Engineering, R&D and manufacturing teams leverage AI, assembly-line experience to enhance the assembly process.

Manufacturing the fourth generation of Toyota’s Highlander crossover unfolds in the 4.5 million sq-ft2 Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Indiana (TTMI) plant in Princeton, Indiana that’s roughly the equivalent of 80 football fields under one roof. That massive production footprint houses six operational areas to process components for three different models, including more than 4,000 new parts for the midsize Highlander. 

For Toyota – long an acknowledged industry leader in manufacturing process-improvement techniques – finding ways to make the new 2020 version of its three-row CUV easier to build was a multi-year undertaking involving research and development, engineers and manufacturing team members. Once initial ideas and designs for the next-generation model were in-place, a Highlander pilot team consisting of plant workers R&D, and production engineering was deployed. 

“They are all working hand-in-hand to determine what works for manufacturing and what doesn’t. It’s a back-and-forth dialogue during the vehicle’s development and this continuously goes on all the way through the start of production,” said Brian Krinock, senior vice president of vehicle plants for Toyota Motor North America (TMNA); he and other Toyota officials recently spoke with SAE International at media event at the TMMI facility.  

Parts redesigned
On the prior Highlander, installing two seat track covers for the second-row seats was a cumbersome installation process that typically failed to provide assemblers with satisfactory tactile and aural feedback of being properly fitted. In stark contrast to the old design, the new seat-track cover design – initiated by a TMMI team member’s suggestion – is simply easier to install because of added ridges and a new engagement contact point for the CUV’s approximately 18-inch (457-mm), longitudinally-positioned seat-track covers.

Any design change that elicits improvement is relevant, according to Norman Bafunno, senior vice president of Unit Manufacturing and Engineering for TMNA. “Every day, we’re trying to figure out how to do things better. Our industry competition is really strong and is evolving very quickly, so if we can unleash the potential in people to feel comfortable giving their input about a problem and how that problem might be solved, the cumulative effect is a really positive outcome,” Bafunno said.    

Door-sill scuff plates on the 2014-2019 Highlander also had assemblers questioning whether the part was properly installed. The redesigned scuff plate slides inside a track, then is pushed down to complete the installation. “It’s those seemingly ‘little things’ that can make such a huge difference to the assembly process,” said Leah Curry, president of TMMI. 

How a part is designed to function matters to all users. “Design engineers tend to look at a part’s form and function from the customer perspective. And even though design engineers understand the manufacturing side, they are not living and breathing the building of vehicles. That’s why the collaborative effort involving R&D, production engineering and manufacturing is important,” Curry said.

Plant-floor changes
To coincide with the 2020 Highlander’s change to the Toyota New Global Architecture-K (TNGA-K) platform, the automaker invested $1.3 billion to modernize the Indiana plant. New equipment, retooling and other changes impact the plant’s six operation zones: stamping, die maintenance, body weld, paint, plastics and vehicle assembly. “This is the first time we’ve had a thermoplastic resin hatchback for any Toyota vehicle in North America,” Curry said.

The Highlander’s change from steel to thermoplastic for the hatchback prompted a total reworking of the 209,617 sq-ft2 West Plastics shop, which was done while continuing to produce the Sienna minivan, Sequoia full-size SUV and the prior-generation Highlander. “Before we were taking things from one-side of the shop to the other side and back again. Now it’s just a straight flow, then a left turn to the assembly area,” Curry explained.

In addition to the lighter-weight hatchback, the Highlander also replaced the former model’s steel hood – as well as the front and rear steel fenders – in favor of aluminum. Now, both aluminum and steel are handled in the plant and Highlander’s material changes altered the workflow in the weld shop. “We’re now doing laser welding on the body, which wasn’t the case with the prior model, “ Curry said, “Because we can make the laser welds closer together than what was possible with the prior model’s spot welding, the new Highlander has a more rigid unibody.”  

A collaborative approach
February 2020 was the scheduled start for a pilot program involving visualization technology to be tested at TMMI. Trainees wear a head-mounted display that projects holographic images overtop physical parts. Toyota’s Production Engineering TILT Lab and Microsoft collaborated on the augmented reality (AR) tool that provides the user with step-by-step visual and written instructions, such as how to install a wire harness into a door frame.

If the AR tool becomes a production training staple, the technology also could serve as a conduit for two-way communications between assembly workers and engineering. The 2020 Highlander exemplifies how collaboration with R&D, engineering and manufacturing exposes areas for improvement. For Bafunno, those improvements often begin with the things that vehicle consumers seldom notice. 

“It’s all about the little details,” he said, noting the ‘little details’ include how fasteners and clips are used, how wire harnesses are routed and how parts are mated. “It sounds so easy, but you need a lot of input to get it right,” he added, stressing the importance of communication. “If you’re a design engineer, you probably feel like you’ve created a pretty good design. But we tell people to always be open and collaborative. The end result is transformational improvements,” said Bafunno.  

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