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Toyota Churns Out Engines Built to Power Cars of Today and Tomorrow

Toyota Alabama President David Fernandes (right) and Assistant Manager Joey Reese perform a quality check at the Huntsville plant.

Toyota Alabama President David Fernandes (right) and Assistant Manager Joey Reese perform a quality check at the Huntsville plant.

Photos courtesy of Toyota

Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Alabama produced 700,000 engines last year, and according to David Fernandes, president of the facility, the Huntsville plant will likely produce that many in 2018.

“We actually produced 700,000 engines at the end of 2017, and what is amazing to me is that that actually breaks down to about 3,000 engines a day, and that is about six times as many engines as we started with in 2003,” Fernandes says, adding that the plant a year ago celebrated its 5 millionth engine.

As for 2018, Fernandes says, “I think we are probably on pace to produce that same volume.

“We have great demand for our products right now. We make engines for the RAV 4 and the Highlander and the Tacoma, and all of those are selling really well,” Fernandes says. “I really don’t see anything changing as far as the customer. The customer seems to be liking the bigger vehicles, and that is the engine we make, so I think we will be close to the 700,000 in 2018.”

In addition to volume, Toyota Alabama boasts on its versatility.

“We like to brag that we are the only Toyota company outside of Japan that makes the 4-cylinder, 6-cylinder and V-8 engines.”

This past September, Toyota Alabama announced a $106 million investment to replace the 1,400-employee plant’s current 4-cylinder engine line with an advanced 4-cylinder line that is part of the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform — Toyota’s initiative to design, develop and build more efficient vehicles to help improve fuel efficiency, reduce thermal heat levels, and, overall, make efficiency improvements to its vehicles.

About 40 percent of the plant’s production is 4-cylinder engines that go into the RAV 4 and Highlander, while V-6 engines go into Tacoma, Tundra and Highlander models and V-8 engines into Tundras and Sequoias.

The new engines will include a total of nine engine designs offered in 17 different versions. The TNGA engine designs will feature gasoline, hybrid and electric options.

“To me, TNGA is really about how we design vehicles and manufacture vehicles,” says Fernandes. “We try to make a flexible platform that can be adjusted for future models. At the end of the day, the vehicle is a much more fun vehicle for the customer to drive.

“I have driven the new Camry that has the TNGA engine in it, and it is just the way that the car hugs the road and the way it accelerates and decelerates. It is just a more responsive vehicle in total.”

The automotive industry is undergoing what some say is a transformational change, with the development of self-driving vehicles, hybrid vehicles, artificial intelligence and wireless connectivity, as well as improved fuel efficiency and safety standards.

“Toyota is absolutely looking at lightweight vehicles, like every other major vehicle manufacturer, because the lighter the weight, the less fuel required for the vehicle,” Fernandes says.

But as for diesels or hybrids replacing the gasoline engines Toyota makes in Huntsville, Fernandes says he doesn’t see that just yet.

“I just don’t see gasoline engines going away anytime soon. They are still an integral part of the market and I think that customer demand is still there for those products.

“We just want to be ready for whatever the market demands of us, so there is a possibility that we will make different products at this plant, depending on what the customer demands.”

Fernandes says he thinks the industry as a whole is very challenged by the current regulations that are coming in regard to fuel economy. “I think that is what is driving the whole shift to hybrids and electric vehicles and all that discussion, but I tell you, the thing that probably we are most sensitive about right now is the whole discussion about NAFTA and not only for our Toyota Alabama plant. I will give you a couple of statistics I like to share with people.

“Last year, out of those 700,000 engines I told you about, 250,000 of those engines went to our Canada facilities, 150,000 went to Mexico, and those engines get put into vehicles, then get shipped back to the U.S. in some cases. So I think we have to be very conscious and careful about any negative impact or changing the structure of NAFTA that could negatively impact North America.”

As for his choice of personal vehicle, Fernandes drives a Lexus RX. “It actually has an Alabama engine in it,” he says.

Bill Gerdes is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He is based in Hoover.

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