GEORGETOWN, KY - The launch of the '95 Toyota Avalon might also be called the internationalization of Keith Kidd - and many of his colleagues.

Long considered children in Toyota Motor Corp.'s expansive international network, the No. 1 Japanese automaker's U.S. manufacturing operation finally has proven itself and is getting to spread its wings. In a complete role reversal, the Toyota Motor Mfg. USA Inc. (TMM) plant here, where Mr. Kidd is a team leader on the trim line, is the sole Avalon manufacturing source. It was added to Camry production late in 1994. Up I-75 in Ann Arbor, MI, the Toyota Technical Center (TTC) is charged with giving the new Avalon flagship an American flavor.

That's no easy task. Even though communication is easier now that there's a technical center only about 350 miles (560 km) from the U.S. manufacturing operation, instead of 10,000 miles (16,000 km) away in Japan, Toyota still holds onto the lion's share of the pre-production decisions.

That means hours on planes - hours in meetings and days away from home - for the American contingent. But for some, like Keith Kidd, it's an opportunity not only to travel, but to learn first-hand how Toyota expects its vehicles to be built, engineered and designed.

Sometimes the price is high. From June 1992 until October 1993 Mr. Kidd was either in Ann Arbor or Japan. One of his first trips across the Pacific was postponed a few days to await the birth of his daughter. "I left for Japan with a six-day-old baby at home," he says. "I was gone six weeks. I knew what homesick was for the first time. It didn't help that I'd never been outside the U.S. before."

Those working in Ann Arbor also made long jaunts to Japan, where they spent at least eight hours daily for a week of tedious meetings that required each group to detail its status in the design phase. Sometimes they spent even longer days in video conferences with Japan. Once or twice a week they gathered in the conference room at TTC around 7 p.m. for two-plus hour meetings.

But the channels of communication are always open. Whether Mr. Kidd has a suggestion on manufacturing or a TTC engineer says the Americans would prefer things this way or that, their views are discussed. "Meetings are very positive, there's no criticism, they aren't confrontational," says David Baxter, general manager of TTC's parts evaluation department.

That's how TTC engineers try to work with suppliers. Although Toyota has no plans to extend design and engineering responsibilities to the supplier base as Chrysler Corp. is doing, it is giving those who have proven themselves more leeaway.

Donnelly Corp., for example, provided the Avalon's rear-view mirrors, quarter windows and visor holders. Avalon is the first regular Toyota with rear-view mirrors mounted on the windshield glass. "Just because 8 million cars (in the U.S.) have glassmounted mirrors, that's not good enough for Toyota," says Jeffrey A. Rose, general manager of TTC engineering design II. "We were trying to determine how big it should be, and where it should be. Ours are currently bolted to the roof We claim zero fall-off because of that. Now we are concerned that if one falls off, there goes our J.D. Power survey."

But Toyota had an 18-year relationship with Donnelly and built up enough trust to accept that part off-the-shelf, says Eric Bitner, the supplier's Toyota account manager. "The greatest achievement between us is the way the ideas are exchanged and implemented ... we have gone from a time when direction was given and tested to a situation with Avalon where our ideas and concepts were trusted before prototype. The key is to gain Toyota's trust through earlier work. Then you can get things implemented in a meeting rather than make prototypes and get them tested," he says. "It's a terrible thing to spend $100,000 on a prototype, only to prove something you as supplier already know."

With that kind of give-and-take here, why not give the Americans more authority? critics ask Toyota. The answer is not that the parent doesn't want the child to grow up. It's that Toyota is an international player and does not want to duplicate resources around the world. "Vehicle systems development will stay in Japan," says TTC's Mr. Baxter. "We are developing the components here. We'll do some static testing and coordinate dynamic testing, but the core development stays with TMC in Japan.

"It's more efficient to focus on engine development, under-body development, systems, safety systems and basic electronics in Japan," he says. "Then when you localize a vehicle in Arnerica like the Avalon, we can do the upper body and interior, flush it out in North America, and havea unique vehicle."

TTC designed and engineered the entire Avalon interior except the instrument panel because it lacks crash-test certification capabilities. The underbody work, as well as the pre-prototype build-up, remained in Japan and was transferred to TTC, which built the first prototype on Feb. 5, 1993, about 18 months before Job I launch here in October 1994.

Once a prototype date is chosen, it's set in stone. Suppliers are expected to be there on time, or else. "We need to get things done right 18 to 24 months ahead of launch so we can spend the rest of the time doing the tunning," says Lyn C. Hollis, TTC general manager. "We aren't proving whether the thing works or not, we are just fine-tuning it."

Sometimes, however, Japan simply doesn't have the technology to quickly create quality components for the American market. Take seats, for example.

The Avalon has the first bench seat used on any Toyota vehicle, other than taxicabs, so the technology wasn't readily available in Japan. TTC worked with long-time seat supplier Johnson Controls Inc., which formed a joint venture with Araco Inc., part of Toyota's keiretsu, a few years ago to initially build trim covers for the Camry in Georgetown. That venture, Trim Masters Inc., now builds complete seats for the Avalon.

The American and Japanese contingents initially disagreed about the seat's cushion length. TTC did some studies and found that Americans prefer a longer cushion; the Japanese staff had the opposite opinion. The differences were presented to Avalon's chief engineer, who made trips to Ann Arbor to see for himself. Today, the Avalon has the longest cushion of any Toyota vehicle.

It's that kind of attention to detail that sets Avalon apart, Toyota claims. Members of one TTC team, for example, spent two hours on a video conference with the chief engineer about the air flow regulators, or "vanes." He thought they looked ugly and wanted a smaller radius. Mr. Rose says he's convinced that American customers would never pay any attention to those vanes. "But at Toyota to at least one person who is responsible for the vehicle, even that kind of attention to detail meant quality. It wasn't that the corner was sharp, he wanted it smoother," he says.

Another reason for nit-picking is that later in the model year the Avalon will be exported to Japan, where potential buyers scrutinize their cars more than race-horse breeders pore over the parents of future Kentucky Derby contenders. In Japan, customers use a mirror to examine the underbody of a used car for rust. A little bit of surface rust can nix a sale, or lower the price. Over there automakers use a tough paint on underbody parts so when they're sold two years later the car looks spanking new in the mirror.

Toyota even wanted the Delco MacPherson struts painted, but when you're buying 100,000 and they make 5 to 6 million a year, the odds aren't good it will be done, points out Mr. Baxter. Delco politely declined. "What it boils down to is we have discussions with the vehicle managers in Japan and bring them up to the forefront so they can make an educated decision," he says.

The same holds true for the link between TTC and TMM. Study teams from Georgetown traveled to Ann Arbor to practice building the car on a small production line housed at TTC. Every production phase is pre-built there. Groups from TMM may spend a month fly-specking the design and building it at their own pace to examine issues - loading and reloading windshields, powertrains or whatever - to see how things will work in the plant. This group trains the assembly plant workforce back in Georgetown.

"It is so much more helpful to have them (design/engineers) there than to have to (go to Japan)," says Cheryl Jones, manager-expansion in Georgetown Plant No. 2. But meeting Avalon deadlines was still tough. TTC was ex andin its quarters during the early phases, and TMM was building the Avalon plant. On top of that came training 1,500 people to build the car, and designing a manufacturing operation that would accommodate both right- and left-hand-drive (LHD/RHD).

To put it mildly, 1994 "was an educational year," says Ms. Jones.

The first cars were tom apart and rebuilt about six months before launch by those who would train the rest of the workers. As with many first tries, it didn't work well out of the chute. "When we built the first car we couldn't get it together," says Mr. Kidd. Although the Avalon has fewer parts than the Camry, it is more complex to build. Camry sedans also run down the same line at TMM - three in 10 are Camrys - further complicating the build process.

One in eight Avalons built is RHD for export markets. That's called hijunka, or a balanced mix. One steering wheel is put on every 84 seconds as the car rolls down the line. That means assemblers must hustle to install RHD because they've got to walk around the car, and that takes an additional 2 to 3 seconds.

Line workers also must concentrate continuously on their tasks - and not just for safety and quality purposes. Camry and Avalon only share the fuel tank, fuel-filler pipe, power steering tube, tires and battery. The Avalon has 2,200 parts, Camry, 2,400. It's no wonder then when it came time to design the car, assembly workers were consulted. That's why Mr. Kidd spent so much time in Japan.

Team leaders like Mr. Kidd work with the manufacturing engineers to create the build process. Trainers write standards, put together work schedules and order tools and jigs. Standing by at all times is a TMC coordinator, who has inside knowledge of how the production system runs in Japan. These people don't push their ideas on the TMM crew and will only give opinions if asked, says Ms. Jones.

For its part, TTC has resident engineers at the assembly plant to handle startup problems. There are many, as fine tuning continues in manufacturing and volume increases. Overtime has become a way of life.

"I am redoing my bathroom at home," says Mr. Kidd, who puts in 2 to 3 extra hours each day. "It took me three weeks to get a mirror hung."