Are Robots Behind Perceived Drop in Toyota Tacoma Build Quality?

2013_TMMBC_10_Anniversary_004 II

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, 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.

Manufacturer images

Tacoma robot shot II

Toyota San Antonio 5 II



Don't miss my 2012 made in Mexico pos.
Thank you ford F150 & the UAW.

@Big Al

Why bullshit people with facts you made up. Just admit that your so called facts (about the Toyota tooling being old) is something you pulled out of your ass!

Then all's well.

Otherwise it's actually pretty neurotic. Consider getting help.

@BAF0 - Quality comes down to management, not tooling or robots. Does the Tundra get more love? It should, if you ask me. For one, the Tundra is in a highly competitive market. The Tacoma just has Nissan (no reg cab) Frontier competition. And the Tundra is the more profitable line of trucks too, if they can sell enough.

Now the Tundra is crossing the $50,000 threshold. The Taco is more like the redheaded stepchild of Toyota trucks, and wouldn't surprise anyone if they cost as much to build as Tundras. The Tundra should be a priority truck for Toyota. Lots of growth/earning potential.

Tacoma sales will nosedive anyways, when the Colorado/Canyon arrive. And when the regular cab is gone, also.

The Taco needs to vacate the San Antonio assembly plant. Pronto Tonto. The Tundra should have the plant to itself to increase production and possibly add 3/4 ton and up, HD Tundra trucks. That and bring Sequoia and Lexus LX production to San Antonio.

I see somberos and huaraches in the Taco's future.

@Lou_BC: Sorry to take so long in responding. As for "how many people on an assembly line have that ability or skill" I have to respond with, the supervisor has the ability to stop the line if necessary, but with experience, the assembly line worker has the skill to recognize when something isn't right. True, assembly lines have turned some workers into 'robots' and some human workers simply don't care--they're there simply to make a paycheck. On the other hand, SOME care--and they tend to be an ongoing QA at least in their specific area of assembly involving fit and appearance prior to installing their sub-assembly. Not just welds and gross fit factors that can affect the rigidity of the structure, but even the alignment pins and welded-in studs for attaching dash and interior components that could lead to loose parts and annoying rattles. These workers also tend to advance into supervisory positions over time.

@papa jim
You got me;) Maybe you didn't.

Toyota opened the $2.2 billion San Antonio plant specifically to build full-sized Tundras. Then the recession hit, Tundra demand plummeted, and Toyota shifted Tacoma production from its shuttered plant in Fremont, Calif., to help keep San Antonio running at full speed.

I suppose all of that equipment at the NUMMI plant was recycled and trashed.

@Big Al

systems in a large plant are refreshed according to an operating planner's cycles. This includes both the IT systems, the precision tools, as well as the heavy duty stuff like conveyors, electric motors, hydraulics, pneumatics, etc.

Your mention of the Fremont closing makes me wonder, just like it did you.

I'm guessing that the majority of the Fremont stuff was a loss. If memory serves, Fremont had been in decline (Toyota Matrix and the Pontiac Vibe) for quite a while. Fremont's demise came at a cataclysmic time in autos--2008, 09 or so.

They couldn't give the Vibe away. Matrix was a redundant item in Toyota's catalog. The current Matrix is a non factor in the global sales scheme of things.

This matters because global auto production has been a over-capacity status quo for quite a while. When that condition exists that widely, nobody's looking to buy the "recycled" guts from the old plant.

@Big Al--It depends on what type of equipment and how old it is. Some of the Fremont plant equipment could have been sent to other plants. When the GM plant that assembled Camaros and Firebirds in Norwood, OH closed in 1987 it had some newer equipment which I believe was paint booths and/or sprayers. The newer equipment was transferred to a plant in California and in Mexico. My guess is that most of the equipment in San Antonio is new since the plant was new but they could have equipment transferred in from other plants. I would think if the equipment is too old it would be either sold or scrapped but not being famiar with this plant or equipment I don't really know.

@Jeff S
Stamping would be the same. Engine manufacturing of engines would be the the same (engine manufacturing is done in another state).

Suppliers are also automating.

We had an issue here in Australia with the Ford Falcon engine design.

The Barra engine is based on the 1969? raised platform Ford small block six. This was done in the late 80s because the equipment to manufacture the engine was from the late 60s.

The Barra engine is still used today.

Similar to many US V8s. Argentina also worked with Australia with the new 'big' block derived engine back in the 60s and 70s. This is when Ford Australia diverged a little from Detroit in engineering. So much of what is used today is old in many auto manufacturing companies.

Pickups are cheap and generally of lower quality, not just because they are commercial vehicles, but also the tooling used in their manufacture is 'flogged'.

The problem of having shortened product cycles is cost. Shorter product cycles are being thrusted onto the manufacturers by regulation, even globally. This will cost money, and create the issue we see here with the Tacoma.

Toyota are trying to obtain as much out of existing tooling, machinery and support equipment as possible.

They are using new automated equipment that is having difficulty working with the 'older' parts.

I do think Toyota are gearing the factory up so not to build a new factory. This means they aren't expecting a huge increase in both Tacoma and Tundra sales numbers.

Apparently Toyota is looking forward and using 2023 as the date for the San Antonio plant to continue manufacturing the Tundra and Tacoma.

Over the past decade many manufacturers a moving towards high tensile thin chassis's and bodies on vehicles. This will also create issues with current production techniques, but nowhere's as much as Ford will have going aluminium.

New equipment using parts designed to be fabricated under different conditions will create issue during manufacture.

Much equipment used in these auto manufacturing facitlities is relatively old. When a new and improved piece of equipment is added it has to be able to cope with previous parts, but also be used for years down the track.

San Antonio is transitioning into a new era. The new Tacoma will be of thinner steel, like the global Ranger/BT50 that are using the newer lighter high tensile steel bodies. I can assure you of that. (Subjective, but appears to be logical).

@Big Al--The Tacoma hasn't changed much in 10 years so it would make sense that stampings could have been transferred from Fremont. I would guess that most of the equipment is new in San Antonio. The GM plant that was in Norwood, OH transferred equipment to other plants that was only a few years old. The Norwood plant closed because the quality was terrible and they had labor problems. I worked with a guy who had been a manager at the Norwood plant and he said management planted cameras on the assembly line because of the sabotage by the workers. He said they workers on the line would deliberately damage the cars on the assembly line so that they could earn overtime by repairing the damage (they actually caught this on camera). It doesn't seem like you hear about this type of sabotage today or maybe it just doesn't happen as much.

@Big Al

Do yourself (and the rest of us) a favor--whenever my comments ramble and drag on as much as your last one, let me know.

The comment to Jeff S that started with "...Stamping would be the same" covered at least ten topics and did not really crystalize on a single point.

You and I are locking horns over this crap about "old tooling" I realize that every plant's management team wants to optimize the fullest use of equipment, but never at the expense of allowing finished-goods quality to fall below the internal standards the company's managers have adopted.

In your recent comment you made a preposterous statement: "...Suppliers are also automating"


It is good that Toyota will have more workers involved in the production of their vehicles but most of the defects are not related to Toyota's production, but instead to supplied parts which is mostly what other manufacturers are experiencing. Robotics have improved many aspects of production like welding.


Although this is older it shows Toyota as the most efficient auto plant in America. I guess those "rednecks" aren’t as dumb as you thought. I'll take a "redneck" turning wrenches on my truck any day before some over paid, unskilled, ignorant Yankee UAW clown from third world country like Detroit

Actually building them in USA caused a major down turn in build quality it still has not regained lost quality still
From rusted out frames to exploding power windows

Can't be worse than FORD and GM though however Nissan
is as good as Toyota if not better
The titan XD if that truck is rock solid Nissan will have a run away winner on it's hands.

Both Toyota and Nissan took big hits since they started making them in USA.
Japanese are known for quality craftsmanship
Americans today are known for being lazy and wanting the shift to end.

Choosing not to use High Strength steel is a bad choice
flimsy beds on c rails is another catastrophe
I hope they sort out the premature frame rust out problems.
Drum brakes in 2016 is a laughing matter
sluggish crude engines
Seems like Toyota has not put much effort in their trucks
Relying instead on blind as bats followers.
In order to maximize profits.

Choosing not to use High Strength steel is a bad choice
flimsy beds on c rails is another catastrophe
I hope they sort out the premature frame rust out problems.
Drum brakes in 2016 is a laughing matter
sluggish crude engines
Seems like Toyota has not put much effort in their trucks
Relying instead on blind as bats followers.
In order to maximize profits.

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