It all clicked when Karen Cooper saw the clay model Avalon at Toyota Motor North American Research and Development in Michigan.
“I had never seen a clay model before,” she says. “You walk in and you see a full-scale replica that looks identical to a car. it’s painted and it’s on wheels and it has headlamps on the front end. I saw that and I realized this is the Avalon that I wanted to make. I didn’t want to be the road block. I want to see this go to the market just the way I see it here. That inspired me and it inspired my team.”
As the Avalon’s quality engineering manager, becoming a “road block” was a potential pitfall for Cooper. But once she saw the striking lines and daring curves of the clay model in 2015, she made it a mission to build what Calty and TMNA R&D envisioned.
It’s not an easy job. For the Avalon, Cooper oversaw a team of 37 engineers and quality team members charged with figuring out how to take the Avalon from Calty’s clay model to Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky’s assembly line. Every new model goes through the process. And many times, subtle styling cues get scrapped when the reality of assembly comes into play.
But this Avalon was special. “It’s Toyota’s flagship sedan,” Cooper says. “And we wanted it to look that way.”
Finding a Way
No More Status Quo -- Cooper and company took it upon themselves to ensure customers got the Avalon its designers envisioned.
The Avalon was Cooper’s only new model development vehicle as quality engineering manager. And since it came to market, she’s moved to another role at TMMK as a plastics production manager.
But she and her team formed a key and unheralded part of the new model chain. Where designers and stylists work only within the limits of their imaginations, Toyota’s vehicle manufacturing plants are tethered to reality. They need to figure out how to build a vehicle that fits safety specifications, line limitations and Toyota’s rigorous quality standards.
Nothing about that is easy. But they found a way to get it done.
“One of our major themes was collaboration across boundaries,” Cooper says. “I really didn’t understand what that meant until leading this project. Even in the cases where we couldn’t meet the exact styling intent, we worked so closely with the designers and stylists and manufacturing groups that we always came up with a solution that we knew would still meet the overall concept, would be manufacturable and that the customer would appreciate.”
The Spirit of the Design
Pride and Joy -- Though Cooper led the charge, she credits her team, seen here with the fruits of their labor, with helping to create an Avalon that customers will love.
Indeed, Calty took a risk with the Avalon. Its giant front face and seductive lines were designed to appeal to both its core Baby Boomer buyers and new Gen X customers.
“We’ve been moving in a more sculptural and bold direction,” says Calty president Kevin Hunter. “These are very taut surfaces. We tried to get more crispy edges, even in our sheet metal stamping. We created a more engineered and technical look, while maintaining beauty. “
Cooper’s team took it upon themselves to maintain that beauty. So, when a design element presented a challenge in manufacturing, they worked diligently to figure out a solution that stays true to the look.
Their challenges included physical objects like finding the right parts and tools. But spatial issues came into play, too.
“We have to figure out if we have enough space for team members to use the appropriate tools,” Cooper says. “That helps us avoid things like poor fittings as we install the parts. We have to consider if it’s too difficult for the team member to install parts at certain angles. If the team member has any kind of ergonomic or workability burden, then that can result in a bad fitting, therefore we’d have something that doesn’t meet standards for us or our customers.”
But the key, she says, is to find a way to kaizen the process until it makes sense.
“At one point there was a very unique styling line that went from the hood to the fender to the door,” Cooper says. “And we knew that we couldn’t necessarily meet that styling intent even from the original conceptual phase. So, we worked together with our stamping and tooling engineers to make sure we understood very specific tooling requirement so we could meet the styling cues of that area.”
And when the Avalon rolled off the line, that line was there.
And that’s why all the time spent at R&D in Ann Arbor – which became a second home for Cooper’s Kentucky-based crew – was worth it. That’s why the Avalon TMMK rolls off the line every day is so close to what Calty envisioned. That’s why this 3-year project bringing a designer’s vision to life may have been the most rewarding experience in Cooper’s professional career.
Trace it all back to that day in Michigan, when Cooper and her team laid eyes on that clay model and their mission became clear.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” Cooper says. “But we got pumped up. This is an awesome car. It’s an exciting time for Toyota and we’re a part of it.”
By Dan Nied