It's no secret Toyota Motor Corp. is among the auto makers least willing to parcel its vehicles into “modules” designed, assembled and delivered by suppliers.

But Toyota appears to be changing its mind — slightly. The sourcing for the instrument panel (IP) on the all-new Avalon sedan, which launched in February in the U.S. market, represents a significant departure for Toyota.

“This modular sourcing is completely new for us, for North America, where Toyota typically likes to have control,” says Randall Stephens, executive engineer who led the Avalon program at the Toyota Technical Center USA in Ann Arbor, MI.

“They want to know every component's price, material, everything,” Stephens says of Toyota's typical sourcing methods. “To give that up, even if it's to a kereitsu company, was a big decision for us.”

Toyota awarded the IP contract to Toyoda Gosei Co. Ltd., a Japanese-based supplier that is part of the Toyota kereitsu — or family — of parts producers, many of them partially owned by the auto maker.

“Essentially we gave them design responsibility, so they did the drawings and the sourcing on the components,” Stephens says. “The only thing that doesn't come from TG is the IP safety pad itself, which is made at TMMK (Toyota's manufacturing plant in Georgetown, KY).”

Stephens thinks differently of modularity. “Modular to you means a supplier ships it in, and we pop it into a vehicle,” Stephens says. “I try to talk about it as modular sourcing. Even for us to give up that control is a big move for us.”

At its plant in Missouri, Toyoda Gosei assembles the IP in several pieces, which are shipped to Toyota's Kentucky plant for final assembly.

The level of collaboration between the auto maker and Toyoda Gosei was unprecedented. “TG brought their engineers from North America and Japan here to TTC and worked with our IP engineers on styling, manufacturing,” Stephens says.

Modularity has been creeping into Toyota's North American product lineup. For instance, the auto maker outsourced significant IP assembly to supplier Vuteq for the '04 Sienna minivan.

The Avalon experience has gone smoothly enough to suggest future Toyota programs could see more modularity.

“It's definitely a direction we're headed,” Stephens says.

Other Avalon suppliers include Trim Masters Inc. (seats), Denso Corp. (smart key, climate control, seat ventilation), Toyota Boshoku Corp. (headliners), Delphi Corp. (steering column) and Advics North America Inc. (brakes).