GEORGETOWN, Ky. — The electric-blue Camry rolling off Toyota's assembly line here last week clearly marked a fundamental change for America's best-selling car, with its blacked-out roof, pinched nose, side scoops and aggressive styling.
Less obvious were the myriad changes inside the Georgetown plant, which is undergoing $1.3 billion in upgrades, not just for the 2018 Camry going on sale this month, but also for future generations of cars and crossovers.
The eighth-generation Camry is the first vehicle to be built in North America on the Toyota New Global Architecture, a platform that translates into a lower center of gravity for better handling, engines with better fuel economy and more power, and looks that nod at those performance gains. But Toyota executives say the influence of the Toyota New Global Architecture goes beyond the cars to define a new approach to every aspect of car-making. Toyota New Global Architecture factories are being rolled out across the globe to give the Japanese automaker a competitive edge, building in greater efficiency and maximum flexibility at a time when consumer tastes are becoming more fragmented.
"TNGA is really about an overhaul mindset for the company," said Tom Burrows, project manager, vehicle quality and production engineering. "It's an opportunity for the designers, stylists and our production engineering and manufacturing to think about — and create — what is the best vehicle possible, the best plant possible."
The Kentucky plant is Toyota's biggest in the world, with around 8,000 workers who produced more than half a million cars last year, including a separate line for the Lexus ES. Tooling up for the Toyota New Global Architecture meant building a new factory inside the older one, while keeping the old line running the earlier-generation Camry and the Avalon large sedan.
"We don't stop making the current model while we're preparing for the new," said Wil James, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky. "So we've had thousands and thousands of hours of people working over the weekend and working over the holidays to introduce the new technology."
During a plant tour, Toyota executives pointed out some of the practical effects that the Toyota New Global Architecture is having on the production cycle, including extensive retraining of workers for their new tasks. The new engine assembly line can make the four-cylinder and the six-cylinder motors for the gasoline-powered cars, as well as the hybrid engine without taking extra steps like in the past.The long-planned $1.3 billion investment in Kentucky drew praise from President Donald Trump — including an attempt to claim credit for it — when it was announced in April, just months after he criticized Toyota's planned $1 billion Toyota New Global Architecture plant in Mexico to build the Corolla.
The radiator at the front of the motor is now part of the engine "module," meaning it doesn't have to be awkwardly installed later. The engine line is smaller and closer to the assembly line.
Once the Avalon moves to the TNGA platform next year, the plant can eliminate one of the three trim assembly lines thanks to the streamlining of work tasks and the use of modular assemblies, said Dan Antis, vice president of manufacturing at the plant.
Eventually, the space savings could be used to increase capacity by bringing in another vehicle, such as the RAV4, which is expected to outsell the Camry this year for the first time.
Toyota has struggled over the last couple of years to balance its car and light-truck supplies to match consumers' growing taste for crossovers, relying on RAV4 crossovers imported from Japan to supplement its Canadian production and building a new assembly line for the Highlander SUV at its plant in Indiana.
"As a result of TNGA and the commonization of the underbody, it makes it easier for us to bring in any vehicle, whether its an SUV or another car," Antis said. The exception would be body-on-frame trucks and large SUVs, which are built on different platforms.