Conceptually, the automotive assembly line process introduced a century ago by Henry Ford has undergone little substantive change: until now.
Given, for example, the huge annual production volume generated by Toyota Motor Corp., it may seem incongruous that such a system has survived for as long as it has.
But Toyota, with its much-vaunted technological prowess, has finally redefined the assembly line process to cut production time and costs at a new plant that started operations this month.
The conventional image of an assembly line no longer applies to Toyota's new production flow, which takes the form of a U-shaped curve with a number of assembly stages being carried out simultaneously along the way.
To conserve space, the vehicles are placed sideways on a platform on a conveyor belt, instead of bumper to bumper. Because a standard car is about 4 to 5 meters long but only about 2 meters wide, the production track is only one-third the length of a conventional assembly line.
Toyota officials said the U-shaped arrangement allows workers on the outside and inside the curve to engage in separate tasks more easily, contributing to reduced production times.
Thanks to the reduced space and other innovations, investments for the new plant were kept at about 60 percent of initial plans.
The new system has been installed at the plant of Toyota subsidiary Central Motor Co. in Ohira, Miyagi Prefecture.
Toyota's innovations come roughly 100 years after Ford Motor Co. invented the automotive assembly line, a trademark feature for volume production.
Toyota decided to take a hard look at what is considered a given on the factory floor because demand for low-price vehicles is growing in emerging economies while sales in industrialized nations remain sluggish.
The yen's steep appreciation has also forced the automaker to come up with new ways to cut production costs.
Central Motor's plant assembles a line of small sedans for overseas markets badged as the Yaris, which is known in Japan as the Belta.
The new system is being used in assembly stages that are complicated and require a large number of workers, such as the placement of engines, interior sections and underbody parts.