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Engine Plant Climbs Toyota Mountain

Beginning in 2003 with 350 people, Toyota’s Huntsville plant — at $850 million total investment and 1,150-employees — is now poised to become the largest Toyota engine plant in the world.

Gov. Robert Bentley was on hand in 2011 to help Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama officials unveil their new line of four-cylinder engines.

Gov. Robert Bentley was on hand in 2011 to help Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama officials unveil their new line of four-cylinder engines.

Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama in Huntsville is on course to become the largest Toyota engine plant in the world, aiming to produce 744,000 engines annually.

The only Toyota plant building 4-, 6- and 8-cylinder engines under one roof, Toyota supplies engines for eight American-built Toyota models. It is increasing production for V6 engines for the Highlander and hopes to reach a 216,000 unit-per-year increase in V6 production.

To accommodate the increased production, Toyota is expanding the plant with the addition of a new, 300,000-square-foot building, increasing the facility to nearly 2 million square feet. The automaker broke ground on the new building last September.

“Our latest expansion has four assembly lines,” says TMMAL President Jim Bolte. “The Highlander sells incredibly well, so we’re happy to help make more available.”

The plant also is installing new equipment for machining V6 engines, which should be complete by summer 2015. These improvements represent a $250 million investment, making the total investment in the plant over $850 million. 

Toyota’s Huntsville operation — the only Toyota plant making four-, six- and eight-cylinder engines under one roof — has a goal of producing 744,000 engines a year.

Toyota’s workforce also has expanded to meet high production demands. To prepare for the increased workload, the plant worked closely with AIDT, the state’s workforce development agency. “With AIDT, we’ve built a strong and diverse workforce,” says General Manager of Administration Emily Lauder. “We have 18 counties represented from Alabama and Tennessee, and employees coming in from around the globe.”

The continued growth has led to the addition of 125 new jobs, bringing the plant’s total employment to about 1,150. “We had over a thousand applicants for the initial expansions,” says Lauder. “AIDT helped us find the best candidates through preliminary training.”

Through a variable workforce program, temporary workers involved in previous expansions were made full-time employees. Trainees go through a “day of work” simulator in which they familiarize themselves with the basic tasks involved. They receive hands-on experience with trial engines to learn the assembly process and hone safety and efficiency.

Bolte attributes the plant’s steady progress in part to the company’s adherence to a set of principles called the Toyota Way. “It comes down to respecting the human,” he says. “We work diligently on two-way communication among all levels of staff.” The Toyota Way draws heavily from the concept of Kaizen. The Japanese word, literally meaning “improvement,” has come to represent a philosophy of continual progress and change for the better. “It’s important to work together toward common goals,” Bolte continues. “That’s why Toyota looks for team members who are flexible. We look for problem solvers.”

Since starting its production lines in 2003, Toyota has enjoyed a close relationship with both its neighbors and the surrounding state. “We’ve been very successful in Alabama, and we love working in Huntsville,” says Bolte. “At every government level, we’ve been embraced as a corporate citizen.”

As the automotive industry has continued to expand in Alabama, state leaders have been keen to show their support for state-invested businesses. Last November, Gov. Robert Bentley and a group of state development officials visited Japan to meet with industry leaders, including Toyota Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada. 

Bolte, who joined the Alabama representatives abroad, believes that the meeting was a successful step in strengthening the state’s ties to the foreign-based businesses.

“The partnership between Alabama and Toyota has been great,” he says. “We’re doing business on a global scale, and it’s important to keep relationships strong.”

Toyota Alabama also prides itself on being one of the most environmentally conscious plants in the U.S. The recent expansions have allowed it to incorporate new environmentally friendly construction, energy-efficient lighting and the reduction of emissions.

“Every time we grow, we want to improve on what we’ve already done,” says Bolte. Toyota’s efforts
earned numerous recognitions in 2013, including an Air Pollution Control Achievement Award from the City of Huntsville.

Bolte also anticipates the arrival of alternative fuel cars in the coming years. “Toyota leads the market in hybrid production,” he says. “These cars are on the rise, and you will start to see more hybrid plugins in the future.” In an effort to provide alternative fuel sources, Toyota is currently researching hydrogen fuel cells. Concept cars were debuted at the Tokyo Motor Show last November, and the finished product is planned to launch around 2015.

The recent investment indicates overwhelming confidence in Toyota’s viability for years to come. At the end of 2013, sales for the company’s various models were climbing. Demand for Toyota products is high across the board. “Many plants across the U.S. have been running at 100 percent capacity,” says Lauder. “Everyone is running overtime to meet demand.” 

Engines in high demand include powerful V8s for the Tundra and Sequoia, and V6s for the Tundra and Tacoma. “Customer preference depends on who and where you are,” says Bolte. “Working trucks need something strong like a V8. A family may need something different. In Europe, small diesels are popular.”

Since production began here 10 years ago, Toyota has received five major investments to spur productivity and growth. This latest investment is a testament to the relationship between Toyota and Alabama, and the plant is looking forward for yet one more milestone this February.

“We’re just about to produce our 3 millionth engine,” says Lauder. “In 2003, we started with one V8 engine and 350 people. We’ve been steadily improving ever since and are ready to continue the trend in 2014.”

Thomas Little is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama.  He lives in Birmingham.

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