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With Toyota as partner, Mazda hopes to jump-start US market

With Toyota as partner, Mazda hopes to jump-start US market

TOKYO – A decade after Mazda Motor’s cars disappeared from Ford Motor’s Michigan factories, the Japanese automaker is building again in the United States – this time with fellow countryman Toyota Motor.
When the first Mazda CX-50 crossovers rolled off the assembly line at the joint Alabama plant in January, they were packed with efficiency gains hammered out by the two automakers, both known for their cost-cutting intelligence and manufacturing expertise.
For Mazda, resuming local production with the help of Toyota’s deep local knowledge and reputation for reliability is the game changer it hopes will boost sales in the world’s second largest market.
“It’s a huge benefit for us to be able to learn from Toyota’s vast experience in the United States,” Masashi Aihara, head of Mazda Toyota Manufacturing U.S.A. (MTM), said in an interview with Reuters last week.
While the 50-50 venture may seem like a David and Goliath partnership, it also offers a glimpse of how Toyota intends to glean new skills from its growing roster of smaller partners.
As competition in the industry intensifies — not least from potential new entrants like Apple and the Sony Group — Toyota has taken minority stakes in Mazda, as well as small-car maker Suzuki Motor and four-wheel drive specialist Subaru Corp, in recent years.
Aihara, a 38-year Mazda veteran, said his election to head the $2.3 billion, 300,000-unit-a-year factory was proof that learning was mutual.
“Under President (Akio) Toyoda, Toyota is constantly trying to change the way it does things, and I think (putting me in that position) he said, ‘If there’s anything you can learn from Mazda can, learn it.’”

The Huntsville, Alabama plant, which opened last year and is set to accommodate electric vehicles in the future, contains many firsts for Mazda.
MTM tows components from local suppliers on chained tractors, saving time loading and unloading trucks.
The order in which vehicles are assembled was also streamlined and machinery standardized as much as possible, eventually allowing Mazda and Toyota cars to be built on the same line.
“There were times when we both realized that we were just doing things a certain way out of habit,” Aihara said. “And in some cases, we’ve come up with a hybrid approach where we bring in techniques from both sides. That’s something we couldn’t do at Mazda.”
The operation was not without problems.
A tight job market has meant the plant still has 900 workers fewer than its target of 4,000 and it runs one shift instead of two. Mazda plans to increase US sales by around a third to 450,000 by the middle of the decade.
An early plan to train six teams at Mazda and Toyota plants in Japan was derailed by COVID-19, with the second team having to cut its journey short. Still, Toyota’s US presence paid off there, too: Kentucky and other local plants helped complete training for the rest, Aihara said.
“Ultimately, the primary purpose of this factory is to help grow our US business,” he said.