Toyota's ecologically friendly car plant

It is not just on the road that automotive manufacturers are striving to be ecologically friendly, as E&T discovers.

Japanese car maker Toyota is generally regarded as setting benchmark standards in 'lean' manufacturing, in other words production processes in which waste and inefficiency are continuously driven towards minimal levels.

Nor are its objectives or procedures any less stringent when the target is the environmental efficiency of those processes. In fact, the company's aim in this respect is nothing less than "leadership in every region in which we operate".

That emphatic statement of intent was made late last year by Steve Hope, general manager, plant engineering division for Toyota Motor Europe, the organisation that encompasses all of the company's production, sales and marketing activities in Europe.

Hope stressed from the outset that objective encompasses all aspects of manufacturing and all forms of emissions: "We take a 360-degree approach that includes all products and services." That approach addresses all of the activities involved - "research and development, production, logistics, marketing, sales and end-of-life issues".

The aim is that the whole company should be "green, clean and lean".

Given the scale of the company's operations in Europe, the task is considerable. As Hope reminded his audience, Toyota's European activities now comprise nine production facilities in the UK, France, Poland, Czech Republic, Russia, Turkey and Portugal, which between them represent a total investment of around €7bn.

Actual production rates are also high. For instance, last year at the UK car manufacturing plant in Burnaston, Derbyshire, over 1,000 of the company's Auris and Avensis vehicles were produced over the two shifts of every working day, equivalent to one vehicle every 45 seconds.

The holistic approach to environmental issues that the company pursues covers not just all forms of activity, but all their possible environmental consequences. Hope says that in physical terms there are four quite distinct areas of attention. These are: energy and CO2; water; waste materials and emissions to air.

On the last of those Hope added that the company regards the emission of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) produced by painting and coating operations with particular concern. But he also made it plain that "compliance and risk reduction" are, in effect, a fifth area of attention.

Environmental management

Nevertheless, Hope stressed that, while compliance with legislation is obviously necessary, the company rarely if ever regards this as sufficient. Instead it sets its own, usually much more stringent, targets. As he put it: "We take significant voluntary actions."

As an example Hope pointed out that not only do eight of the company's European manufacturing sites have the ISO14001 environmental management standard, they have also achieved "zero waste to landfill". He indicated that Toyota is the first company to achieve this in the worldwide automotive industry.

The company's approach to environmental issues is the same as for all other aspects of the continuous improvement - or 'kaizen' - methodology that it applies in production processes.

Actual targets are obviously set by management but ideas can, quite literally, come from anywhere within the global organisation. As with all other forms of kaizen, the methodology is to prove out a technique at a local level within a single site, then to diffuse the relevant procedures out first of all to the rest of that particular location and then by degrees to the rest of the company. The context in which this occurs is that of a global five-year plan set by the company's worldwide headquarters in Japan, which is then broken down into more detailed one-year plans for individual plants and specific objectives.

The reference point for global objectives is, in fact, a corporate 'Earth Charter', whose ultimate objective is the production by the company of the 'ultimate eco-car'. That concept, however, also includes vehicle attributes, which are beyond the remit at which Hope is aiming. That, rather more modestly, is simply the "ultimate eco-plant".

As with kaizen initiatives aimed at all other production processes, though, those with environmental goals take place in line with the principles embodied in the company's Toyota Way and Toyota Production System methodologies, as well as its own environmental management system.

The company has embarked on a strategy in which several plants worldwide have been earmarked as 'model sustainable plants' in which methodologies for achieving optimal environmental performance will be developed. Outside of Europe, three plants have been selected - one each in Japan, Thailand and the US. Hope observes that the three represent, respectively, an old facility, a new one and one that is in the process of being commissioned.

Model plants

Within Europe the company's manufacturing operations in France and the UK have been chosen. Again, three plants are involved with UK contributing two - the vehicle plant at Burnaston and the engine manufacturing facility at Deeside, North Wales. Again, there is a contrast in ages with the UK facilities dating back to the early 1990s and the French to the earlier part of this decade.

Hope says that this spread of ages is quite deliberate: "We want to be able to improve the performance of older plants and take the newer ones onto a different level." 

In the UK, for example, the period from 1993-2007 saw a reduction of just over 70 per cent in energy usage per vehicle manufactured from around 6,000KWh to under 2,000KWh. Over the same period, water usage per vehicle declined by a little more than 75 per cent to under 2m3 per car, while the VOC emissions that Hope identified as of particular significance declined by over 70 per cent to just over 20g/m2. Total waste per vehicle dropped by over 60 per cent to around 10kg per car.

These are considerable achievements in their own right, and vindicate the appropriateness of Toyota's in-house kaizen methodologies for almost any campaign aimed at achieving cumulative improvements in performance. The basic principles are those of visible top management leadership and devolved responsibility to shopfloor personnel working in teams. As Hope says: "You have to have a clear management system that is transparent to everyone from the president of the company to line workers."

Meanwhile, the 'continuous' element of the kaizen approach, the refusal to be satisfied that an improvement process has reached a stop-point, is evident from the comments Hope made about water consumption. Though water usage per vehicle manufactured in the UK was reduced from 2.94m3 to 1.81m3 in the period 2004-2008, the company is still looking for further improvements. Investigations are taking place, Hope reveals, into enhanced 'ultra filtration' techniques that could enable re-use of existing waste water and into rainwater harvesting. Investigations are also underway into finding ways to eliminate water consuming processes across both plants.

What this remorseless quest for improvement can eventually generate is a 'delinking' of production volumes from associated environmental consequences. In other words, even if production figures rise total environmental impact may fall.

This is what has happened with CO2 generation in the UK. As another of Hope's slides indicated that while the number of cars produced in the UK rose from a little over 200,000 vehicles in 2003 to around 270,000 in 2007, total CO2 emissions actually fell - in this case from approximately 120 million kg to around 100 million kg. It is probably safe to assume that this is an area that will still come in for further attention in the new model environmental plant initiative.

Just what other activities that initiative will involve is not yet clear. Hope indicated, though, that wind power trials are likely to be carried out at both sites. In addition, the UK is already hard at work in trying to reach another 'zero' benchmark - this time for waste to incineration, something that has already been achieved in France.

In enhancing environmental performance, in fact, the motto is the same as with any other form of improvement process: "You can't buy respect. You earn it through activity and results."

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