Sunday, January 23, 2005

Technological Tranfer at Work

Here is an example of technological transfer: Toyota sets up a manufacturing plant in Mexico. Except things aren't exactly the same...

Except for the Mexican flag flying outside the plant and the signs in Spanish inside, the plant here, painted a gleaming white, looks like most other Toyota manufacturing facilities. But there are notable differences between this plant and a Toyota factory in, say, Kentucky.

One is the relative lack of automation. Production volumes are too low to justify the expense of automating the entire assembly line, said Robert Ried, the plant's vice president for administration.

So in one part of the plant, truck beds are built from metal parts stamped at a Toyota facility in Long Beach and a bed structure made at another factory in Tijuana. Elsewhere in the plant, workers put together truck frames and passenger cabs with parts shipped from throughout the United States and Mexico.

For the final assembly, laborers fit the pieces into jigs mounted on wheeled carriers, weld and bolt them together and roll them down the assembly line. Interior wiring harnesses are installed at one station, seats and instrument panels at several others.

This factory stands out in another way: Many of the people working here came from electronic assembly jobs at maquiladoras, the foreign-owned factories that dot the border with the United States.

"Teamwork, personal responsibility and looking out for the other guy, all things Toyota's system values, are not what the maquiladoras have been all about," said Gordon Hanson, an economist at UC San Diego's Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies. "The challenge Toyota faces is to get the workers to adapt to its ways."
Cultural issues are quite a challenge for getting the job done...

At first, Rodriguez indicated through an interpreter, the challenge of his job was as much cultural as physical.

Mexican culture emphasizes self-reliance while Toyota stresses cooperation, and "I would conceal problems and try to fix them myself, without help," he said. "But now I have learned to communicate. And I have learned that there is never a dumb question."
And sometimes, it is good to be flexible.

when workers found it hard to push their heavy carts full of parts over an electrical conduit, they didn't complain; they scrounged up hammers and chisels and laboriously chipped a trough across the concrete floor. The electrical cable dropped into the channel, and moving the parts across the floor became easier and faster.

The solution could have led to disciplinary action in many auto plants; carving up factory floors without permission might be frowned on. But Ried and other managers applauded.


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