The Toyota Factory Nestles in the Derbyshire Countryside, Calm and Sleek. One Imagines a Magritte, Captioned "This Is Not a Car Plant."

By Barker, Paul | New Statesman (1996), March 20, 1998 | Go to article overview

The Toyota Factory Nestles in the Derbyshire Countryside, Calm and Sleek. One Imagines a Magritte, Captioned "This Is Not a Car Plant."


Barker, Paul, New Statesman (1996)


The robots raise their heads in a line, like a row of dogs waiting for the word. Then they all bend down together and start welding in busy little stabs: dogs tearing at a dead fox.

But this is the bodywork of the new Toyota, the Avensis, finally coming together. Occasional showers of sparks are the only old-style evidence within the Derbyshire plant of a manufacturing process. The factory feels uncanny: so quiet, so clean, so single-minded. I see a dartboard in one area where workers take a break. But no pin-ups, no torn-out newspaper cartoons, no little notices saying, "You don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps". Instead, slogans are hung across the shopfloor: "Let the First Touch be the Best Touch"; "When Change is the Goal, Discuss the Safety Role".

Coils of steel stand at one end of the plant, like outsize sewing machine bobbins. (Not many, because Toyota gives its suppliers the job of holding stock.) The steel is stamped into shape in gigantic automated presses. It goes down the line on a pallet which contains its own computer. The pallet talks to successive robots, and tells them what to weld this time.

I hop out of the way of little yellow driverless trucks delivering parts along the line. The intercom broadcasts the Lone Ranger theme tune. Time for the tags from fitted parts to be taken back, so that more can be automatically reordered. This is the famous kanban production system. A man cruises down the aisle on an orange-coloured tricycle to pick the tags up. "Long experience," Toyota says, "has proven this to be the simplest and most effective method."

Do you remember all those solemn articles about something called Post-Fordism? But modern manufacturing is simply Fordism to the highest degree. You now need many fewer workers; they are expected to get things right first time; and they are trained to be happy as they work.

Workers at Toyota are "team members". But Toyota is unambiguous about where its methods come from: Henry Ford. I watch a man fitting brake parts, a job too fiddly for a robot. The car body is hung on a moving line. He is standing on a narrow green moving belt. He has one minute and 30 seconds to finish the job.

The men I talk to at Toyota are almost eerily pleased to be here. Few worked at car-making before. But many of them come from a background of redundancy after redundancy, as British manufacturing collapsed. Here is steady work, worth even taking a pay cut for, sometimes, to begin with (though a "team member" starts at [pounds]13,890). …

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