The Road Ahead: An Interview with Toyota's Kevin Butt

Kevin Butt, Assistant General Manager of Body Engineering for Toyota’s North American manufacturing headquarters, will open the Coating 2003 Conference held October 28-30 in Indianapolis, IN, with a discussion of trends in automotive coating and how Toyota’s manufacturing efficiency has led to improvements in the company’s paint and finishing processes.

Kevin Butt, Assistant General Manager of Body Engineering for Toyota’s North American manufacturing headquarters, will open the Coating 2003 Conference held October 28-30 in Indianapolis, IN, with a discussion of trends in automotive coating and how Toyota’s manufacturing efficiency has led to improvements in the company’s paint and finishing processes. He will also present Toyota’s long-term perspective on strategic planning as a guide to weather the inevitable swings in the economy.

Mr. Butt began working for Toyota in 1992 in the Environmental Department. Currently, he is responsible for Body Engineering for all of Toyota’s North American manufacturing operations including welding, stamping and painting operations. He has also served as Chairman of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturing’s Stationary Source Committee and served in the same capacity for the Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers. Ms. Carol Browner, former EPA Administrator, appointed Mr. Butt to serve on EPA’s Common Sense Initiative. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in environmental chemistry from Georgetown College, Georgetown, Kentucky.

Products Finishing magazine recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Butt in order to get his impressions on many of the issues that consume today’s automotive finisher.

PF: Let’s start by talking about the finishes themselves. Recently, there has been some attention paid to advancements such as pre-colored plastics that would eliminate the need for automotive finishing (e.g. the television commercial for GE featuring the finishing robot with nothing to do). What is Toyota’s take on these emerging technologies and their effect on automotive finishing?

KB: Recently, there was a plastics conference in Chicago (NPE 2003) and it was really the first time I had seen some of these new molded-color plastics. There were some very impressive finishes on some of those materials. But I’m still not convinced that mass production from a timing standpoint–being able to meet the production demands that we have in the auto industry–whether or not that can be done yet. But as far as some of the finishes, I think it’s very promising.

PF: Do you think that these technologies pose a legitimate threat to the need for finishing of metal, aluminum and plastic substrates?

KB: Quite frankly, I think it’s a little too early to even consider them a threat. My personal opinion is that they are going to have a niche market for quite some time before we even consider putting them in the mass production for large parts.


PF: Some of the automotive companies are using clear powder as the topcoat on their automobiles. Do you think it will be used by all the automotive manufacturers eventually? Why or why not? Does Toyota use it?

KB: I think that all powder paints are probably the clear direction for the future. Powder materials are becoming more and more technologically satisfactory, so I do see that as a trend more and more over time.

PF: Interesting. Do you see a time span for how long it will take powder to become the prominent coating of choice?

KB: There are a lot of pressures on our using powder. There are environmental issues and so forth. I still think waterborne materials will still be dominant for the next 7-10 years. It’s just like anything else. As automotive manufacturing operations need to revitalize or refurbish their current operations, those new types of materials will be introduced, so it’s going to be a window of time there.

PF: How are Toyota finishes better today than they were 5-10 years ago?

KB: I think it’s a combination of things. One area is the continuous improvement we have in the material that we are putting in the applicators and then on the cars. Second is this our drive to use more robotic applications, thus a more consistent finish. I think it’s a combination of both the materials and the applications.

PF: How would Toyota like to see finishes and finishing methods improve over the next few years?

KB: Higher transfer efficiency is a big area. The more coating we can put on a car, the less we have to pay for what doesn’t get there, the less we have to pay for waste disposal, etc… HAPS (hazardous air pollutants) reduction is a key item for us as well.

PF: Speaking of materials and applications, who within the Toyota organization typically decides what kind of coating materials and application methods are going to be used in a given plant, on given type of vehicle or throughout the organization as a whole?

KB: That decision is a market-driven decision, but we use a combination of this North American Manufacturing Headquarters and Toyota Motor Company in Japan, which develops a lot of our materials and application types. So it’s a combination of us here looking at the North American marketplace and the quality targets we’re trying to achieve and improvements to make, plus what Toyota Motor Corporation is doing globally.

PF: With regard to the marketplace, do you get the sense that today’s consumer is driven by factors such as durability of coatings, or does it remain more of a color issue?

KB: I think consumers are getting more sophisticated about the type of coatings they are. Obviously, they want to have an eye-catching color and finish, but clearly, they are looking at things such as our Lexus vehicle, which just recently came in on top in the JD Power results (JD Power Automotive Reliability Survey). I think it’s a combination of both. Very clearly, they want something that looks great, but they want it to look great 3-5 years from now.

PF: How would you describe Toyota’s approach with regard to quality assurance (for the finishes on its vehicles)? Would you describe it as more worker-oriented or technology-oriented?

KB: Everything we do at Toyota has some team-member orientation to it. But for the painting operation, it is a unique combination of the two. The Toyota production system provides the worker the ability to stop the production line anytime he or she sees a defect or a blemish in the paint line, and go back and correct it before it’s passed on to the customer. We use very high-end technology, some of the best robotics applications, but at the same time we utilize the ability of our team members to affect the end product.

PF: Toyota manufactures cars all over the world. As you know, air pollution controls vary pretty radically from place to place, as do labor and other factors. How does this diversity influence the coatings and coating methods used by Toyota?

KB: Toyota is a worldwide company, and we currently function under what we call the Toyota Global Environmental Policies so we are very consistent in meeting certain environmental targets, no matter where we build the plant. A typical example of that is our Mexican operation, which we are just now constructing, regardless of what the rules and regulations are in Mexico. Those regulations, by the way, are a lot more stringent than most people think. We are still meeting our internal targets, which are even more stringent than that.

PF: So, with regard to the automotive industry as a whole, where do you see things (e.g. environmental issues, waste management, etc…) heading in the next five years or so?

KB: I think I can speak on behalf of Toyota. We are very, very proactive in our environmental initiatives. We have several plants that have gone to zero landfill type of targets. That’s a part of it. We live in a world now where we have to live with our neighbors and try to have a manufacturing operation going on for years. We are very conscious of that and try to make every effort to do that from the design of the vehicle all the way to the manufacture of it.


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