Toyota’s new Blue Springs, MS, plant is on track to open this fall, despite capacity shortfalls at other Toyota North America plants where the Japan earthquake and tsunami have created parts shortages.

With construction complete, “the big thing we’re doing now is hiring, training and process equipment installation,” David Copenhaver, vice president-administration at the Tupelo-area plant, tells Ward’s.

Equipment installation is in various stages of completion, he says. Completion rates are:

  • 96% in the press shop.
  • 80% for welding equipment.
  • 65% in the paint shop.
  • 20% in final assembly.

Even though the first Corolla compact car has yet to roll off the line, the plant already has a well-worn history.

First announced in February 2007, Blue Springs, the Japanese auto maker’s eighth North American vehicle-assembly plant, was to produce Toyota’s Highlander cross/utility vehicle.

In late summer 2008, the soaring gasoline prices sparked a change in plans: Blue Springs would build the Prius hybrid-electric vehicle. But before the year was out, global economic chaos rippled through the auto industry and Toyota shelved the project.

In June 2010, the auto maker revived Blue Springs with the news it would produce the Corolla, which was ending its U.S. production run with the closure of Toyota’s New United Motor Mfg. Inc. plant in Fremont, CA.

“We did have to do some building modifications, to accommodate the different platforms and the different equipment,” Copenhaver says of the changes, though the Prius and Corolla share a platform.

“We had to do some substantial modifications mainly in stamping and weld, and also in assembly.”

Although controversial – NUMMI was Toyota’s only unionized U.S. plant – the Fremont site’s closure has benefited Blue Springs. Much of the tooling at the new plant comes from NUMMI, Copenhaver says.

Blue Springs acquired NUMMI’s main press, which stamps 17 different body panels, while Cophenhaver estimates 70%-75% of the weld shop equipment is from the California plant.

However, the paint shop at Blue Springs has all-new equipment because it is the first U.S. Toyota plant to feature the auto maker’s 3-wet paint technology. Most of the site’s assembly-area equipment also is all-new.

The time lapse from last June’s construction restart to production launch this fall is “the shortest we’ve ever had in history for a new plant and a new vehicle,” Copenhaver says.

As of May 5, Toyota hired 673 workers for the Blue Springs plant, 70 of whom were tapped during the 18-month lull and put in full, 40-hour weeks.

Production-worker training varies depending on their roles, but a general course is five weeks.

Toyota’s Georgetown, KY, plant is the “mother,” or lead plant, to train Blue Springs workers, but Woodstock and Cambridge – Toyota’s sites in Ontario, Canada – also are pitching in.

Cambridge currently assembles most Corollas sold in the U.S., while Woodstock, home of RAV4 CUV production, is the first Toyota North American plant to use the more eco-friendly 3-wet paint process.

“We’re taking advantage of the years of experience we’ve got in North America now, to help make us more self-sufficient and less dependent on (Toyota in Japan for training),” Copenhaver says.

When Blue Springs launches this fall – reports suggest an October production start – the site is expected to host 2,000 workers, plus 1,000 supplier jobs.

Toyota initially said Blue Springs would support 2,000 supplier jobs, but that higher figure rests on whether current California-based Corolla suppliers will relocate to Mississippi.

“Hopefully, when we do a major model change (for) the next-generation of the Corolla, that will happen,” Copenhaver says.

The current Corolla debuted in late 2007. Based on Toyota’s usual 4- to 5-year passenger-car lifecycle, a new model should bow before 2013.

Production-worker hiring began in January and will continue through October, with most applicants going through a multi-step process, part of which is administered by the state of Mississippi. These steps include a 1-day assessment to measure attention to detail and time management skills, and a 1-day assimilation program that matches workers with specific assembly operations.

The starting wage for Blue Springs production workers is $15 an hour. That can increase to $21in five years, similar to the 2-tier pay structure negotiated between the United Auto Workers union and Detroit auto makers.

At Kia’s plant in West Point, GA, hourly workers start at $14.90, but eventually can earn as much as $23.50.

Most of the production workers hired at Blue Springs live in northern Mississippi, while a smattering come from Tennessee and Alabama, Copenhaver says.

Some have previous manufacturing experience, largely with furniture companies. But such experience was not a pre-requisite.

Unlike Toyota’s sprawling plant in San Antonio, home to the Tundra and Tacoma pickup trucks, Blue Springs will not have a supplier park. But many suppliers are located within a day’s drive of northern Mississippi.

However, two companies – a logistics company and a tire-and-wheel supplier – will be on-site, while a few suppliers built facilities just for Blue Springs within an hour’s drive or less of the plant.

Those suppliers include a division of Toyota Auto Body, called Auto Parts Manufacturing Mississippi. It will source welded parts, including the Corolla’s suspension system, and injection-molded instrument-panel components, Copenhaver says.

A division of seat- and door-panel supplier Toyoda Boshoku, is located in the tiny town of Mantachie, MS.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com