By Tim Esterdahl
If you visit any Toyota Tacoma forum, there is usually at least one thread discussing the build quality of the current generation versus previous models. For many, the location of where the pickup truck is built remains a point of discussion (some wish it was still built in California, others want it to go back to Japan). However, what if robots are to blame?
According to Automotive News, Toyota says it is changing its production methods. Instead of adding more robots — the industry trend — Toyota is adding more humans. The idea is humans are better at spotting issues and improving the production process.
Toyota plants used to have many craftsmen skilled in the ways of building automobiles and improving production. Over time these "gods," or "Kami-sama," were lost due increased reliance on robots. But that might be changing. Toyota intends to grow a new workforce of skilled craftsmen.
The use of humans to improve production is actually a fundamental part of "kaizen," popularly known as continuous improvement and otherwise known as the Toyota way. This production philosophy was a big part of the reason why the Toyota brand became synonymous with quality for many years. In many cases, craftsmen would suggest production improvements, and the changes would happen quickly instead of taking months and/or years to be implemented. This resulted in a better overall quality through direct and immediate feedback from the production team.
During the massive growth of Toyota around the turn of the century, production moved away from people in favor of robots. These robots certainly allowed Toyota to increase production; however, there may have also been a greater cost. Critics of Toyota, and even Toyota's current President Aiko Toyoda, point to the growth and production changes as the underlying problem behind the unintended acceleration issue and how solutions and information were disseminated.
With production changing and Toyoda's desire to return to a focus on quality, Toyota has also announced a three-year freeze on building new car plants. This should potentially give the company sufficient time to make changes.
Many Tacoma forums, like TacomaWorld.com, have noted a drop in quality in the second-generation pickup as a result of the decision to change production locations several years ago. The truck was first built in Fremont, Calif., before being moved to San Antonio, Texas. Some say the trucks built in California had fewer issues than those built in San Antonio. The reality is more likely that those issues have little to do with location, but rather more to do with timing.
The second-generation Tacoma was conceived and built during the previously mentioned massive Toyota growth period. During this period when robots replaced humans, Toyota was focused on being the No. 1 automaker in the world and less about being the automaker with the highest quality. So could it be that robots are to blame for quality concerns about the Tacoma? Certainly Toyota seems to be implying yes, but experts like J.D. Power don't necessarily have the data to support that thesis yet.
If the craftsmen had played a larger role in the current-gen Tacoma, it makes sense that the truck would likely have a higher quality record. But don't get us wrong. We aren't saying the Tacoma has poor quality. Rather, there seems to be a large group of midsize Toyota truck fans out there who believe the drop in quality between the Toyota pickups of the 1980s and the current generation of Toyota pickups are happening for a reason. And they may have a point.
In the end, we won't know the full impact of Toyota's production switch and process improvements for several years. No doubt, there will be more data to come.