Nagoya Japan as Destination City: Toyota Bound

We have some wonderful memories of our last trip to Nagoya Japan. Although we didn’t specifically select it as a destination, it was a convenient two-night stop for a day trip into the so-called Japanese Alps where we went to the Takayama festival, where men carry dozens of ornately carved, gilded, 17th-century floats around the city. While beautiful, it was challenging to navigate a remote mountain town in which absolutely nobody spoke English and where nothing  was written in English. But that was part of the experience.

Nagoya presented similar language challenges, and on our first trip there, we hadn’t yet learned the trick of having our hotel write things out for us in Japanese before we ventured out.  One evening, we wanted to go to a tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlet) restaurant for dinner. We left, loaded with our map and directions, only to find no indication of a restaurant at the specified location. Since these were the days before cell phones, Google Maps and Google Translate, we ended up returning to our hotel for more precise directions and written symbols that we could compare to those on signs.

On our second try, we found the restaurant, but faced another challenge. No English menu and nobody who could translate the menu for us. Even worse, no pictures of food. Somehow, we communicated with our waiter to get our hotel concierge on the phone. We asked the concierge to have the waiter read him the menu. The concierge then told us what was on the menu and communicated our order to the server.

The next night’s dinner was even more interesting. When we requested a tempura bar, the concierge recommended a tiny neighborhood place in a alley. Armed with precise directions and the Japanese symbols for the restaurant and its address, we left. This time, however, the restaurant sent a scout to keep an eye out for two confused Americans.

She found us and guided us to the family restaurant, a tiny tempura bar that could accommodate only ten people. We found ourselves with the owner, his wife and a man who we later, after many sakes, many attempts at communication and many false starts, learned was an elementary school friend of the owner. By the end of the evening, after many more glasses of sakes, we found the five of us singing the only song to which we all knew the words–I Left My Heart in San Francisco (which was while we we’re still living in Boston).

Exactly the type of thing from which the most indelible travel memories are made.

This trip, however, Nagoya was our destination. Our goals were to visit Nagoya Castle, the Toyota Commemorative Museum and then to take a 90-minute trip outside the city to take a tour of a robot-driven Toyota auto assembly plant.

After a brief, easy, comfortable 40-minute ride from Kyoto to Nagoya on the amazing Shinkansen train (ten-to-twelve-car bullet trains that run every five to ten minutes between Osaka and Tokyo), we checked into our hotel, had lunch at a sushi restaurant and began our visits.

Nagoya Castle, originally built in 1612 by the first in the line of Tokugawa shoguns, was the first castle to be designated a National Treasure, in 1930. Although the granite walls survived World War II tombs, the palace and the castle’s iconic main tower did not. The castle was rebuilt in 1959 and the palace in 2013. Since many of original materials, documents, photographs and plans survived, the restoration was historically faithful.

The palace, which certainly looks newly built, reproduces many of the original screen paintings, particularly of the tigers that symbolized the power of the shogun. Although there are towers at each of the corners, the six-story northeast corner tower is the tallest and most dramatic. It also contains historical displays with models and basic explanations of the castle and its rooms, traditional weapons and armor and of the materials and techniques used in its construction. The gates, other three smaller towers and gardens are less dramatic. But still interesting.



Toyota Commemorative Museum

This museum is divided into two pavilion. The first is dedicated to the company’s first and still significant business of making textile equipment. The story begins in the late 1800’s when the Meiji government first opened the Japanese economy to foreign products and innovations. In textiles, for example, this, combined with Japanese technology and process innovations led to Japan’s progression from being 100 years behind Western companies in 1900 to being the leading textile exporter in the world by 1937.

Japanese textile manufacturing innovations began in 1890, company founder Sakihi Toyoda, developed an innovation that allowed traditional wooden looms to be operated with one hand, rather than two hands. This led to the creation of a textile equipment manufacturing business that progressed from machines designed for individual processes of the textile production process, from the spinning of thread from raw cotton, through all phases of the weaving process. While the company continues to make equipment to automate individual processes, such as water-jet and air-jet looms and the sophisticated Jacquard process color weaving loom, its current focus is on continuous automated processes, whereby raw cotton can be converted into woven colored patterned cloth with with virtually nonhuman involvement.

This focus on building the equipment and the processes for continuous manufacturing led to the company’s entry into the automotive business (which was financed by the sale of a number of the company’s textile equipment patents). It launched this operation in the 1930’s, first with trucks and then in 1936, into cars. The display took us through an evolution of its 1930’s trucks and cars through its newest Lexus. Ore interestingly, one side examined many of the car’s component technologies: engines, transmissions, bodies, headlights, windshields and so forth, demonstrating their evolution over the last 80 years. Then how auto deign changed (from pencil drawings through CAD), and the ways in which changing focuses on fuel efficiency, safety and recycling and sustainability has continually changed design standards and technologies.

Another set of displays demonstrated the types of equipment used in making and assembling the roughly 30,000 components of each car. These in lined the forging of steel engine blocks and crankshafts, the pressing of sheet metal hoods, roofs and door panels, the painting of the body and the assembly of the final vehicle. A video than showed now this all ones together in a modern virtual manufacturing plant, where robots do the vast majority of heavy lifting (such as moving components, welding, painting and lifting the engine and drive train into the car body) and humans do the delicate and discretionary work (such as wiring, adjusting, testing and inspecting).

One thing special about the museum. It certainly has displays that show and demonstrate the evolution of its technologies and processes. It, however, has interactive displays that actually work, allowing you to see how the technologies actually work. More importantly, it has guides that will take you through the exhibits, explaining the progression in technologies and providing an historical perspective. It also has people manning a number of the exhibits, such as the spinning of thread in textiles and casting and metal pressing in automotive manufacturing. The casting process demonstration, for example, takes you from the of an aluminum ingot (as a substitute for it on, which has a much higher melting temperature) to just below melting point and putting it into a small, 250-ton press, for the three-step process of forming and cutting the component (in this case, a small sample of a tie rod that you can take home as a souvenir). Although English is certainly not the first language of the guides, they do a credible job. Moreover, their patience and enthusiasm more than makes up for any lack in English skills.


Toyota Factory Tour

The next day, we were off for our 90-minute journey from Nagoya (involving two different trains and a half-hour walk) to the company’s Toyota City corporate headquarters for a 60-minute tour of Toyota’s Kaisen Museum and a 90-minute tour of the plant’s welding and assembly facilities.

The Kaisen Museum lays out Toyota’s broad vision for the future of cars and the steps it is taking toward this future. It, for example, is committed to the type of hybrid fuel systems it has pioneered, gradually migrating to primarily electric vehicles for short distance travel; gas, diesel, bio and synthetic fuels for medium distances; and hydrogen fuel cells for long distance (with experimental fuel cell cars already have ranges of 830 km). It talks of ways it’s continuing reduce vehicle weights (as with carbon composites and smaller tire); its integrated safety management system (as with its multiple driver support technologies, steering and braking advances), lighting, passive restraint systems, HelpNet (accident notification and car tracking) system and its longer term work on vehicle and infrastructure communication. It lays out the primary components for continually improving quality and efficiency and displays many of its newest models (from SUVs to sport cars to mini-cars), plus a number of concept cars (especially the single-person i-unit), personal transporters (generally similar to Segways) and even an extreme concept bike. Those who wish to test their driving safety skills can do so in safety simulators. And, of yes, there is the robot that can play music too.


Then on to company’s Motomachi Plant for a tour of two of its primary processes: Welding and Assembly. This plant, which produces three of the manufacturer’s lines Crown, Mark X and Estimata) has 4,100 employees (spread over two shifts per day), producing 415 cars per day (70,000 per year). That translates into about 1 car per day for every ten employees.

How does it produce so much, with so little labor? Automation, particularly in use of robots to handle heavy, repetitive, low-discretion tasks, such as lifting, painting and welding. And these robots are very flexible. Schedulers can intersperse any of the three car models any place in the line they wish. Every time a new car comes through sensors determine the model and instruct the robots to download instructions for the tasks it must perform for that specific model.

The Welding Shop was almost eerie. Hundreds of robots, performing perfectly synchronized ballet-like maneuvers with barely a human in site. In fact, 96% of the more than 4,000 welds per car, are done by 500 robots (tended by 100 employers per shift). Every time a new car passes, sensor determines the model, instructs the robot to download the precise instructions for each welding is required to apply for the specific model. Then, the robots automatically clean up after themselves, vacuuming up the excess flux that has fallen to the floor and recycling it.

The Assembly Shop is the most labor intensive of the four processes, with about half the work being done by people. People, for example, drive the carts that zip parts across the floor to each workstation. Robots then, pick the parts required for each car and place them in a "synchronized dolly" that moves alongside the car, allowing employees to select and install each part as needed. Every part that is used is tracked and orders sent to the just-in-time supplier as soon as a predefined reorder level reached.

Machines are designed to work seamlessly with people. For example, on the line on which the engine is placed on the chassis, the robot lifts and holds the engine in place while an employee bolts the engine in place, with a tool that automatically tightens each bolt to the prescribed level. Each car, meanwhile, has a transponder that tracks the car through the processes and lets every employee know how many cars have gone through their line, how many are in process and how they are faring relative to what they must do to achieve quota.

In the end, however, the people are in charge of the line. Every employee is an inspector, as well as a worker. Whenever they notice a problem, they immediately notify a supervisor. If the problem cannot be immediately rectified, the line is stopped until the issue is resolved. Then, after the final assembly is completed, each car undergoes a battery of inspections and tests, some totally by humans, some totally by machines and others through different combinations of people and machine.

We did not tour the plant’s two other processes: Stamping (which produces body parts from sheet steel) and Painting. While the painting process is about 90% automated,stamping is lin the 80-85% range. But whatever the precise percentages, the process appears, to the untrained eye, the very model of efficiency and a progenitor to a not-too-distant time when machines will handle some processes in their entirety in a lights-out environment and when a small handful of highly skilled employees will control, monitor and calibrate processes from control panels. Based on what we have seen so far, however, humans will for many years to come, have the final say as to when a product meets company standards and is ready to be shipped to the customer.

Nagoya Restaurant and Hotel

Matsutaya. It was all our fault! We asked the concierge for recommendations for good tempura and ton katsu restaurants. The concierge obliged by recommending two restaurants (one for each) on the same floor of the same building. We, however, had spent a day in cold rain, had wet feet and were not in the mood to walk twelve more blocks in the rain and were directed to something 2 blocks away. Bad decision. The pork in the ton Katsu was about 30% fat, and served with tarter sauce! The shrimp was fried In a heavy ton katsu breaking, rather than a light tempura batter and was rather tough (overcooked). Not a memorable experience for our return to Nagoya. This being said, however, the sake was good.

Restaurant recommendation aside, we had a pleasant night’s stay at the Hilton Nagoya. Due to our status, we had access to the lounge, which included the food and bar and a nice view for happy hour.

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