Despite setbacks from Japan’s hurricane-tsunami and adverse market conditions, Toyota’s latest U.S. manufacturing venture, Toyota Motor Mfg. Mississippi in Blue Springs, MS, is ready to stop trial runs of its newest product assignment and get down to real business.

Plant officials won’t give a firm start date but say they’re on target to begin Job One production of the ʼ12 Corolla later this month.

“It’s safe to say that by the end of October we will be ramping up production of sellable units, vs. trial vehicles,” says David Copenhaver, TMMMS vice president-administration.

The facility represents Toyota’s 14th North American plant – and 10th in the U.S. since entering the market with the imported ʼ57 Toyopet. Since then, the Toyota brand has grown its U.S. portfolio to include 15 cars and trucks.

The once-dormant 1,700-acre (688-ha) manufacturing complex in northern Mississippi, near Tupelo, will produce the Corolla. Toyota’s Cambridge plant in Ontario, Canada, has assembled most Corollas sold in the U.S. Until 2010, the Corolla also was produced at its New United Motor Mfg. plant in Fremont, CA, since sold to Tesla.

Corolla is replacing the formerly slated Prius hybrid at TMMMS. There are no plans to produce additional models at the facility, Toyota officials say.

The 150,000-unit Corolla production run at TMMMS makes it a well-timed launch, the auto maker says. Corolla should provide a boost to sagging sales and inventory shortages.

“We’ll have no trouble selling them, believe me,” Bob Carter, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.’s group vice president and general manager-Toyota Div., says of the added Corolla units.

Toyota is rebounding from a slowdown in the U.S. Sales were down 16.1% in August and 17.5% in September from year-ago levels, a falloff attributed to inventory problems and uncertain economic conditions.

“Production in North America and Japan returned to normal levels in September for the first time since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami” stalled global production and supply, Carter said in a statement included in the company’s Oct. 3 sales report.

“Our plants are now working overtime and dealer deliveries will continue to increase through the remainder of 2011. It’s a tribute to the efficiency of our distribution system and our dealers that we were able to sell more than 121,000 vehicles in September, despite 40% less availability than last year.”

Carter also projects fourth-quarter growth. “The worst is behind us and we expect to exceed year-ago sales levels beginning in October, with continued growth throughout the fourth quarter," he says.

Toyota builds 11 models in North America, including the Camry, RAV4, Tacoma pickup and Lexus RX. Together, they account for nearly 70% of the auto maker’s U.S. sales.

“Toyota's philosophy is to develop and build vehicles where we sell them,” Copenhaver says. “Assembling Corollas at TMMMS is an important step towards localizing this vehicle for our customers.”

Toyota kept TMMMS construction and tooling costs under control, investing about $800 million, vs. the $1.3 billion reported earlier. By shifting to the Corolla product line, the auto maker was able to transfer much of the equipment used at its former NUMMI venture with General Motors, officials say.

The decision to switch from the hybrid Prius to the Corolla for the Mississippi plant was made in June 2010.

“So in just in a few months’ time, (line) changes were made to accommodate this vehicle,” says Toyota Motor Engineering and Mfg. North America spokesperson Barbara McDaniel.

It marked the second change of direction for the plant. Before the Prius, the Highlander cross/utility vehicle hoped to see life there, but Toyota instead moved Highlander production to Princeton, IN.

Because the Prius and Corolla share a platform, only a few line modifications were necessary. A substantial amount of tooling came from NUMMI, including the California plant’s main press and a good portion of its welding equipment, Mississippi plant sources say.

Toyota executives say the investment signifies confidence in the rebound of the U.S. and North American markets.

“TMMMS was originally scheduled to start production of the Toyota Highlander by 2010 (in Blue Springs),” Carter says. “However, the collapse in overall auto sales and the economy led to postponing the start of production to fall 2011. But the Japanese earthquake/tsunami did not have any impact on TMMMS's hiring or overall production schedules.”

Toyota was “optimistic that the U.S. economy can continue on a steady path to recovery, albeit at a slower rate than we'd like,” Carter said in September after the U.S. debt crisis hit.

Plant managers have stepped up employee hiring this quarter, aiming to bring in about 1,500 team members. About 2,000 workers will be signed up by spring 2012, plant officials say.

“Of the 1,500 employees already hired at TMMMS, about 90% are local hires from Mississippi,” McDaniel notes. Plant management has been on board for quite some time, she adds.

Masafumi Hamaguchi, who joined Toyota in Japan in 1985, will serve as TMMMS president. He previously held positions as general manager-sales operation planning and manager-production control for Toyota in Japan.

Flexible-manufacturing concepts will dominate the new plant’s DNA. The auto maker began perfecting its Toyota Production System more than six decades ago. As part of that quality system and philosophy, flexibility grew out of an integrated manufacturing process in which team members share key decision-making on issues such as line speed and production.

Blue Springs is using a new paint technology called the “three-wet process” which is environmentally friendly and uses reduced energy. The process requires only one dryer after the top coat, rather than having to cure after each coat (primer and base) in a more traditional paint-shop setting, McDaniel explains.

Toyota says the Blue Springs site was chosen in part for its skilled and educated workforce; available land with access to interstate, roadway and rail infrastructure; low utility rates; and government incentives.