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When a Fresno, CA grape farmer purchased the first Toyota forklift ever sold in the U.S., little did he know that he would forever be a part of material handling history.

In August, Toyota Material Handling U.S.A. (TMHU) commemorated the sale of that first forklift with a special event for dealers, associates, dignitaries and media held at its U.S. forklift headquarters in Columbus, IN.

In the 50 years since the company sold its first forklift on U.S. soil, more than 800,000 Toyota forklifts have been purchased.

“We’ve accomplished incredible things together,” said Brett Wood, president and CEO of Toyota Material Handling North America at the event. “In 1967 we really only sold a few dozen forklifts to get started. Today, we build a forklift every four minutes.”

The growth in sales is just one thing worthy of celebration. In 1990 Toyota opened its first forklift manufacturing plant — outside of Japan — in Columbus, IN; in 1999 the company unveiled a revolutionary system of active stability technology to drastically improve forklift safety; and in 2002 the company was named the No. 1 forklift brand in North America — a title it still holds today.

“Every single Toyota associate helped us get to where we are today,” Wood said during the Aug. 30 lunch reception. “We did all this working together as one big family — the Toyota family. We are thankful to every single person who has contributed to our success over the past 50 years.”

The TMHU manufacturing plant in Columbus, IN builds a forklift every four minutes. (IMPO photo)

The Toyota Culture

No company hits these kind of milestones without a solid manufacturing environment, and Toyota is no different.

During a tour of the Toyota Industrial Equipment Manufacturing (TIEM) facility in Columbus, national manager of training and the National Customer Center, Thomas Lego, spoke of the importance of the Toyota culture.“It is important for us to do things the right way — to do things with integrity — to understand that the core values of Toyota are as valid today as they were when they were written by the founder,” Lego said.

Like with most families, the members of the Toyota family don’t always agree. And that’s a good thing, according to Lego.

“There are times when we have to become pretty stern with each other because we understand that we care enough about people to make sure that we keep them safe and productive,” he said. “That's one of the things we strive for daily.”

In 1967, this forklift was purchased by Charles Anderson, a grape harvester in California. The sale marked the first Toyota forklift sold in the U.S. (IMPO photo)

Underlining everything that is done organizationally at TIEM is the Japanese phrase “Monozukuri wa Hitozukuri”, which essentially means “making things is about making people.” Lego explains that while investments in equipment and infrastructure are significant, just as important, if not more so, is investing in your workers.

“Those are the investments that really stick,” he said. “If we invest in our people we know that our people in turn are going to invest in the process.”

The TIEM facility was built from a training standpoint, Lego said. Associates from the 200-plus dealer locations in the U.S. and Canada — as well as thousands of technicians — can attend sales, customer support, parts and technical training at the facility.

“There is always something to learn,” Lego said. “We’re going to continue to push folks and create this culture of lifelong learning.”

Toyota Material Handling U.S.A. celebrated 50 years in the U.S. in various ways, including life-sized balloon forklifts.(IMPO photo)

On The Plant Floor

Since Toyota came on the scene in America 50 years ago, the company has seen continued growth year-over-year. In order to keep up with the production goals, Lego said the facility has to run at a 97 to 98 percent efficiency rate. The TIEM facility practices Kaizen — or continuous improvement — which relies on associates always looking at ways to improve productivity, reduce waste and increase safety.

“The system here is intended to bring all problems out in front for us to take care of,” Lego said. “That’s the only way we can turn problems into production treasures.”

During the eight-hour shift that included IMPO’s facility tour, nearly 190 trucks came off the assembly lines at TIEM. Toyota doesn’t batch build equipment — each forklift is different from the next and built to customer specifications. To keep production smooth — and all the moving pieces flowing as easily as possible — the facility utilizes line balancing, which inserts harder to build units between easier to build units.

On the plant floor, automated guided vehicles (AGV) called tuggers deliver subassemblies and parts throughout the day.

“Every 37 minutes we are making deliveries to the line,” Lego said. “We want the associate to receive just what they need when they need it.”

Toyota Turns 50

Two years ago Toyota celebrated 25 years of manufacturing forklifts in America at the Columbus facility. Then, the celebration took place on a patch of grass under a big tent. The 50th anniversary celebration took place in the same location. However, the patch of grass is now a health and recreation facility.

Toyota’s Recreational Complex (TREX) is open 24/7 to Toyota associates and their families for free. Among the facility’s amenities are a gymnasium, yoga studio, spinning room, indoor track and exercise equipment. Additionally, TREX also houses a pharmacy and fulltime healthcare professionals in the medical center.

“It makes me happy to see Toyota associates and their families having fun together, enjoying the benefits of sports and exercise,” Wood said.

Hundreds of Toyota dealers, associates, dignitaries and media gathered at the TREX to tour the facility and take part in the 50th celebration.

Indiana’s Secretary of Commerce, Jim Schillinger, thanked TMHU for its sizable impact on Indiana’s economy.

“Be excited about who you are and what you do every day,” he said. “Every day you’re lifting up Indiana, you’re lifting up America and you’re lifting up
the world.”

Columbus Mayor James Lienhoop also addressed the crowd and shared gratitude that TMHU chose to come to Columbus in 1990.

“The TREX facility is a wonderful example of the commitment you made to more than 1,400 combined associates in Columbus and we know that this facility is just one part of what makes you employers of choice, make your team members happy to come to work and happy to build, sell and deliver the No. 1 forklift in the USA. all right here from Columbus, IN,” Lienhoop added.

TMHU National Manager of Training and the National Customer Center, Thomas Lego, gives a tour of the TIEM facility. (Toyota photo)

The event wrapped up with a keynote address from legendary University of Indiana basketball coach, Bobby Knight.

To help mark the golden anniversary of the first Toyota forklift sold in the U.S., Toyota associates custom-designed, engineered and built a gold-painted forklift, which was unveiled at the milestone ceremony on Aug. 30.

Toyota will also plant 50 cherry blossom trees on its Columbus campus and donate an additional 50 cherry blossom trees to the city of Columbus. Cherry blossom trees are the national flower of Japan, home of TMHU’s parent company, Toyota Industries Corporation (TICO).

To mark the milestone, TICO executives presented TMHU with a ceramic roof tile sculpture. The ancient roof tiles, called Kawara, are from the Takahama region of Japan, and signify the exceptional workmanship that is a recognized quality of all Toyota products.

As part of the celebration, Toyota also presented the Columbus Department of Parks and Recreation with 50 youth scholarships for those in need.

“Fifty years represents a golden achievement in the U.S., and today we honored the associates, the dealers, our suppliers and the community who supported TMHU’s journey to this major milestone,” Wood said. “This ceremony underscored our legacy here in the U.S., but it was also designed to give a glimpse into the future of Toyota Forklifts’ ongoing leadership and growth in the rapidly changing material handling and logistics industry.”

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