Our reason for stopping in Nagoya was simple: visit the Toyota factory, and catch a flight to China. Although Nagoya is Japan’s fourth most populated city, it’s off the mainstream tourist path. The Toyota Motor Corporation headquarters and many of its domestic production plants are located in the city of Toyota – yes, they actually named a city after the company – about an hour train ride east of central Nagoya. Confusingly – and impressively – there’s not one, but three, Toyota Museums in the Nagoya region.
First, there’s the Toyota Kaikan Museum, which is next to the company’s headquarters. Here there is a relatively small museum where Toyota displays its new models and technologies to the public and where the violin playing robot performs. This museum also serves as the meeting point for plant tours. Tours are held once daily from Monday to Friday in English and Japanese. To join a tour we had to reserve over a month in advance (and were wait-listed for a short time). Second, there’s the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology, otherwise known as the Toyota Techno Museum, which is located in central Nagoya. The museum introduces the history of Toyota from its beginnings as a textile machinery manufacturer and also features many exhibits on automotive technologies and the car production process. Third, there is the Toyota Automobile Museum, a large museum located about 45 minutes outside of Nagoya that exhibits Japanese, European and American automobiles from the late 1800s to the 1960s.
On the day we arrived in Nagoya we quickly dropped off our bags and headed to the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology before it closed. The museum is split into two main sections: the Automobile Pavilion and the Textile Machinery Pavilion. I previously knew nothing about the history of how Toyota started. We learned that the founder, Sakichi Toyoda was born in 1867 and invented the Toyoda Model G Automatic loom in 1924. The automatic power loom implemented the principle of Jidoka (autonomous automation) which means that the machine stops itself when a problem occurs, a principle still used in the current Toyota Production System. In 1929, the automatic loom patent was sold to a British company and Toyoda began to travel abroad and notice the popularity of cars. In 1930, Sakichi’s son, Kiichiro, began to research small gasoline-powered engines. In 1933, the Automobile Departments was established within the Toyoda Automatic Loom Works company. In 1937, Toyota Motor Co. was launched.
At the Automobile Pavilion, Toyota’s automobile manufacturing’s evolution over the years is shown. The exhibition consists of four main zones: The Initial Period of the Automobile Business, Automobile Mechanisms and Parts, Automobile Technology, and Production Technology. There’s a good mix of images, old and new cars, cross-sections of models, and working machines. Our timing worked out and we were able to join in on the last tours of the day. The tour was in English and at no additional cost to the entrance fee of 500 yen. The tour guide was extremely informative and we spent about an hour trying to cover as much as possible (it would take days to cover everything the museum has to offer!)
The textiles machinery pavilion was not included in the tour and we had limited time to explore before the museum closed. I hadn’t realized what an extensive collection of machines and dynamic exhibitions were on the textiles side of the museum and seriously regretted not having more time to spend there. There must have been nearly 100 machines displayed in the hall ranging from the early spinning and weaving tools to the present textile machinery. The current machines are incredibly fast and computer-animated. The staff were amazing; as soon as we walked in they immediately asked us if we would like demonstrations of some of the machines. We essentially got a private tour as there was barely anyone in the pavilion. We were delighted to watch the operators demonstrate spinning threads and weaving fabric right in front of us. We even got presented a sample piece made by one of the looms to take home!
The original name of the company was ‘Toyoda’ – the founding family’s name. When the automobile company was established as a separate entity, it was decided to choose a name that requires eight strokes to write in Japanese, eight being a lucky number. And thus, ‘Toyota’ was born.
Toyota Kaikan Museum
We arrived at the Toyota Kaikan Museum about half an hour before our plant tour started to give us time to walk around the exhibits.
Just before the tours started we caught a performance of a Toyota Partner Robot playing the violin!
Toyota Plant Tour
All phones and cameras are left behind in lockers as there is a strict ‘no pictures allowed’ rule. Regardless of the rule, I’d like to point out how incredibly awesome it is that Toyota even allows tours of its plants when many companies keep proprietary information and technology hidden behind closed doors! The Toyota Production System (TPS) is considered by many to be the most well-run and efficient self-correcting production system in the world and it’s open for public viewing.
There are three assembly plants in Toyota City, each specializing in different production models. We were taken by bus to tour Toyota’s Motomachi plant, which produces the Crown, Mark X and Estima. The Motomachi plant produces just over 70,000 cars per year, the smallest in Japan.
The production process is broken into four main parts: stamping, welding, painting and assembly. *All information in quotation marks is from the Welcome to Toyota pamphlet we were given.
Stamping: “Steel sheets are cut and stamped to form body parts. High productivity and precision are achieved through the latest stamping machines and high speed transfer robots”
Welding: “Robots weld about 400 body parts to form a car. The latest welding line can handle multiple models on a single line and produce precisely finished car bodies.”
Painting: “After the body is washed, undercoat, intermediate and topcoat are applied to create a high-quality surface. Water-based paint has made this process even more environmentally friendly.”
Assembly: “At this worker-friendly assembly line, engines, wheels and other pats are installed. Fully assembled vehicles are tested and verified in the final inspection, before being shipped.”
The first stop on our tour was to observe the welding process. Our group lined up against the glass of a second floor overhead bridge looking down on the production lines on either side. Based on all the noses pressed against the glass, I think I can safely assume everyone was as mesmerized as I was. There were no humans below us, only robots – lots and lots of robots – constantly moving, arms flailing and jerking, sparks flying. It was like something straight out of a movie. The assembly line moved fast and the car frames didn’t stay in sight for long.