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A Mazda logo is seen at a showroom of a dealership in Merignac, near Bordeaux, France on April 8 2019. Picture: REUTERS/REGIS DUVIGNAU
A Mazda logo is seen at a showroom of a dealership in Merignac, near Bordeaux, France on April 8 2019. Picture: REUTERS/REGIS DUVIGNAU

Tokyo — A decade after Mazda’s cars disappeared from Ford’s factory floors in Michigan, the Japanese carmaker is once again building in the US — this time with compatriot Toyota.

When the first Mazda CX-50 crossovers rolled off the assembly line at the joint Alabama plant in January they were packed with efficiencies hammered out by the two carmakers, both known for their cost-cutting smarts and manufacturing prowess.

For Mazda, restarting local production with help from Toyota’s deep local knowledge and reputation for reliability is the game-changer it hopes will jump-start sales in the world’s second-biggest market.

“It’s a huge advantage for us to be able to learn from Toyota’s vast experience in the US,” Masashi Aihara, head of Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA said.

Though the 50-50 venture might seem like a David-and-Goliath partnership, it also provides a glimpse into how Toyota aims to glean fresh skills from its growing number of smaller partners.

As competition heats up in the industry — not least from prospective new entrants such as Apple and Sony — Toyota has taken minority stakes in Mazda, as well as small-car maker Suzuki and all-wheel-drive specialist Subaru in recent years.

Aihara, a 38-year veteran of Mazda, said his selection to lead the $2.3bn, 300,000-units-a-year factory was evidence that the learning was mutual.

“Under president (Akio) Toyoda, Toyota is constantly looking to change the way it does things, and I think (by putting me in this position) he was saying, ‘if there’s something to be learnt from Mazda, learn it’.”

The Huntsville, Alabama, factory, which opened last year and is designed to add electric vehicles in future, contains many firsts for Mazda. Mazda Toyota Manufacturing tows components from on-site suppliers on linked-up tractors, saving time on loading and unloading from trucks.

The order in which the vehicles are assembled was also streamlined and machinery standardised as much as possible so Mazda and Toyota cars could eventually be built on the same line.

“There were times when we both realised that we were doing things a certain way purely out of habit,” Aihara said. “And in some cases, we came up with a hybrid method bringing in techniques from both sides. That’s something we wouldn’t be able to do at Mazda proper.”

The operation has not been without its hitches. A tight labour market has meant the plant is still 900 workers short of the targeted 4,000, keeping it running at one shift instead of two. Mazda wants to boost US sales by about a third to 450,000 by the middle of the decade.

An early plan to train six teams at Mazda and Toyota factories in Japan was derailed by Covid-19, the second team forced to cut their trip short. Still, Toyota’s US footprint paid off there too: Kentucky and other local plants helped complete training for the rest, Aihara said.

“Ultimately, the No 1 mission for this factory is to contribute to the growth of our US business,” he said.



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