The Toyota Altona Factory Tour: Cars, Robots And Muzak

toyota-factory-tourSitting in the safety dojo at Toyota’s Altona manufacturing plant, my fingers dancing across the keys as I rapidly pumped out yesterday’s Hybrid Camry post, a zip-lock bag appeared in front of me. “Camera and phone please” was the order – and it was an order, no matter how nicely the Toyota PR rep said it. I was about to get a tour of the factory floor, where Toyota manufactures their Camry and Aurion lines, including the upcoming Camry Hybrid.

With my shiny yellow vest, black Toyota cap and a surprisingly trendy pair of safety glasses, I followed about 20 or so other journalists and Toyota team members as we were led into the Altona factory. The smell was nostalgic – it reminded me of the grease and oil I smelt the first time I ever crawled under my first car. As we walked through the factory, racks of car parts were everywhere, seemingly littered by an obsessive compulsive neat freak but in reality just a part of the Just In Time system Toyota uses to ensure they have the right amount of parts in the factory at any given time.

As we walked along a painted green path – undoubtedly Toyota’s version of the yellow brick road – cars in various states of manufacture proceeded along the assembly line. The factory makes both the right-hand drives we use in Australia, as well as left-hand drive vehicles for the export market at a ratio of roughly 2:1. It takes roughly two days for a car to make its way from a bare-bone shell of a car to a vehicle ready to hit the showroom floor, although there are obviously fluctuations depending on the car, the day and the extra work needed to go into the new hybrid Camry.

In fact, the number of changes the factory has had to make to accommodate the changes in manufacturing the hybrid vehicle are large. Things like having to reinforce the trolley carriers that move the cars around the factory because of the added weight of the hybrid car, and the need to add two wheel belts because you can’t just leave a hybrid in neutral and let it roll along on its own. They’ve also got roving workers who pretty much partner up with a hybrid car and do all the extra “hybrid” work to it as it travels through the factory.

About five minutes into the factory tour though, something strange happened. I heard Greensleeves. And not a proper version – it was muzak. Elevator music. Annoying. As we walked further around the complex, more muzak versions of songs started popping up, loud and obtrusive. Apparently they’re part of a support system – if a factory worker needs assistance, they pull a cord, the muzak starts and a light goes on above them. A team leader, hearing the muzak, will go help the worker and help out. Because each section of the assembly line has a different muzak tune, they’ll always know when to go. And if a team leader doesn’t come, the entire line stops moving…

After the tour, as I stripped off the safety gear and got my camera returned from its zip-lock prison, Greensleeves was still in my head. I also felt like ice cream. And I wondered why there didn’t seem to be a dedicated area for adding the new car smell to all these factory-fresh vehicles. Maybe that smell just comes from the robots