What it takes to craft a Lexus
Lexus Philippines arranged its first-ever media visit to the Lexus Kyushu plant last week, and the event was dubbed as the “Lexus Cultural Experience” designed not only to educate the international media about the brand’s technical and engineering excellence but also to define the brand DNA of Lexus. The event is a series of activities meant to immerse the global media on what Lexus is all about from its roots 30 years ago up to today, as a relatively young luxury car brand. Lexus will celebrate three decades of automotive excellence this year and this branding initiative will further educate the market on what defines this company, its culture of excellence and the people behind it.
The Lexus Cultural Experience was a series of well-curated activities including a Japanese “Ryokan” inn experience followed by a Kaiseki dinner, an elaborate tea ceremony and a Lexus design workshop, which had the participants try to learn how to do the basics of model clay sculpting, Kiriko glass (cut glass) and fabric pleating, all essential activities in creating a well-crafted Lexus vehicle. We will have more about the Lexus experience in future articles but for this story, we’ll talk about the Lexus plant visit and what differentiates it from other carmakers.
The Lexus plant in Kyushu was established in 1991 as Toyota Motor Kyushu plant and it was the first automobile manufacturing plant in Japan outside Aichi Prefecture and since 2005, it became a Lexus dedicated manufacturing plant. Further expansions include its nearby Kanda plant for engine manufacturing and followed by its Kokura plant for hybrid models. The plant takes pride in being awarded by J.D. Powers with the Platinum Award for Best Plant Worldwide five times, a new record for an automobile manufacturing plant.
The Lexus plant is defined by the culture of the people who work there. In order to achieve this, the workplace is designed to be “people friendly”. From special seating, to temperature control, to noise-reduction, and proper lighting, the plant is optimized to ensure productivity and harmony. The Kyushu plant prides itself with an industry first under-floor lighting system designed by its plant workers to ensure proper lighting. From robotics to labor-intensive tasked, the plant is harmonized by using effective communication tools and programs to make sure each and every phase of production fully utilizes the skill and expertise of each plant worker.
A few of these methods include a daily hand-eye coordination test for skilled workers. A demonstration was made during our visit and even asked some of the participants to join in. One of them is the panel gap test. A mock up fender assembly is deliberately misaligned and each skilled assembly worker has to go through this test every day by using their fingers to touch and feel and make an estimate how wide is the panel gap difference. They will have to give the correct gap size with a margin of error of less than one millimeter before they can report to the assembly line. Even in this age of digital instruments, Lexus still relies on age-old artisan methods to make sure the cars they assemble are finely crafted and of the highest fit and finish.
Other tests include the use of one’s non-dominant hands, skilled leather upholstery workers have to pass this test by being able to fold a Japanese origami using the non-dominant hand before one can be trained to sew the leather stitching work and let to use both hands to ensure a high quality finish. The skillful ambidextrous use of hands is evident in the fine stitching of the leatherwork on the dashboards, and other small pocket areas that are hard to reach sometimes by the dominant hand.
At the Lexus Design Workshop, the participants were asked to work on actual full-scale clay models, assisted by Takumi masters. During the design stages, each clay mold starts of with computer assisted milling machine to get the basic shape in place and a skilled Takumi master works on the final shape. Lexus chief engineer Koji Sato, who was present during the workshop intimated that when he was designing the voluptuous LC500 sports coupe, the fender bend was so wide that the current bending machines could not properly stamp the part. The engineers at the plant made so many attempts to follow the clay mold but they insisted on fabricating the proper mold. “I am very proud of my team, instead of giving up, they insisted on finding solutions so that the original design of the LC500 will be followed.” Said Sato.
A Takumi master is the Japanese term for “artisan”, and according to the Lexus website, it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert but 60,000 hours to become a Takumi master. “There is only one route to superior craft, and it takes extraordinary attention to detail. They even hide faults and marks onto cars to ensure their workers reach this standard too. From the test drivers who are tested before the road test, to the room where future Takumi train their senses, these films will show why nothing is crafted like a Lexus.” If one is to work 10 hours a day, it will take about 20 or so years to become a Takumi master. This level of dedication, matched with incessant attention to detail, and backed up with well-engineered and reliable automotive technology makes Lexus a desirable premium vehicle of choice.