Production Engineering 101

Here’s your introduction to a department that works behind the scenes, though its impact is often front and center

July 10, 2018

New Digs -- The setting sun gleams off Production Engineering's new facility in Georgetown, Kentucky. It's the work home of more than 1,200 team members.

You probably know that designers dream about new vehicles and manufacturers bring those dreams to life.
 
But do you know about the people in between who make that leap from idea to reality possible?
 
At Toyota this vital, yet largely unsung, role is played by Production Engineering (PE). It’s a department of more than 1,200 team members who invest some $2 billion annually at all 14 of Toyota’s manufacturing facilities in North America.
 
“We don’t design vehicles and we don’t build them,” says Jason Muench, PE senior engineering manager. “We design and build the assembly lines, machines and factories that make vehicles.”
 
What exactly do they do and how do they do it? Consider this your introduction to a department that works mostly behind the scenes, though its impact is often front and center.

Here’s What They Do
 
For starters, PE is responsible for nine core manufacturing functions:



The process begins in Stamping. Steel and aluminum sheets are run through enormous presses that form and trim the desired parts. From there, the panels flow through a plant’s Body Weld shop. This part of the process is highly automated, bringing into play some 400 robots that make more than 4,000 resistance, laser screw and metal inert gas welds per vehicle.
 
Next up is Paint, where PE-designed machinery applies an anti-corrosion layer, a primer, a base color and a clear coat.
 
Meanwhile, in Plastics, injection molding machines fashion such components as dashboards, bumpers and grilles.
 
These and hundreds of other parts come together in Assembly. This is where the largest number of team members get into the act, executing more than 200 individual processes. As such, efficiency, ergonomics and safety are high on PE’s priority list.
 
PE also coordinates Logistics, making sure the right part arrives in the right place at the right time — in keeping with the Toyota Production System’s “just in time” philosophy.
 
In addition to the manufacturing of vehicles, PE leads production preparation of engines and transmissions. That includes developing the technology to cast, machine and assemble engine blocks and transmission cases within tight tolerances measured by microns.


Here’s How They Do It
 
All of these core functions factor into the preparations for manufacturing a new vehicle, typically starting 24-30 months before the start of production.
 
“We get to see a new vehicle come to life, all the way from the initial CAD drawings to the first vehicle rolling off the assembly line,” says Muench. “That happens in part because of processes we help develop and build. It can be very satisfying.”
 
The first step down this path is referred to as Simultaneous Engineering, in which PE partners with Styling and Design to ensure the new vehicle can be mass produced in a way that’s safe for team members, while maintaining high quality and reasonable costs. Increasingly, that means introducing state-of-the-art manufacturing technology. At times, it can also mean tweaking the design. Often, there is a give and take between the two.
 
While the vehicle design is being finalized, PE crafts a detailed production process plan. Much of this work is now done digitally, crunching data to determine what new equipment will be needed and what existing machinery can be reused, either as is or with modifications. Again, quality, safety and productivity are the priorities. The overall objective: Build a production line that can churn out one new unit every minute.
 
Next, the required production machinery is procured. This includes selecting suppliers and working with them to identify and resolve potential challenges. Millions of dollars are at stake. The decisions PE makes at this stage in the process can have a big impact on the cost-effectiveness of the vehicles that are produced.
 
“Ten years ago, much of this technology came from Japan,” says Muench. “But lately we’ve become much more self-reliant, sourcing more and more of the components we need from within North America.”
 
Once in hand, the new and repurposed equipment is installed on the plant floor. This is a highly complex operation that must be coordinated across multiple trades, such as electricians, millwrights, pipefitters, welders and more. And their work must be completed without significantly affecting the current vehicle production already in progress.
 
Next up is the trial phase, where the new equipment is tested both off- and on-line. It usually takes several iterations to ensure the output – the new vehicle – meets Toyota’s stringent quality requirements, yet also achieves the unit-per-minute objective.

That leads to the vehicle launch. That’s the finish line, right?
 
Not exactly. Often, new issues arise when shifting from single unit to mass production. So PE continues to monitor the flow and develop and implement countermeasures as needed until the new line is hitting on all cylinders.
 
And, in the spirit of kaizen, PE is always on the lookout for further improvements throughout the lifecycle of the vehicle. Simply put, PE’s work is never done.
 
“Production Engineering is an incredibly exciting, challenging and rewarding place to work,” says Muench, who got his start in PE right out of college 20 years ago. “But, of course, I’m biased!”
 
By Dan Miller

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