It’s not just the finishing touches that separate a luxury car from a Lexus.

In fact, for Lexus – Toyota’s premium vehicle brand and Japan’s top-selling luxury car badge – a very hands-on approach and the finest attention to detail form the very chassis of this sought-after nameplate.

The Asian automaker, which enjoys access to state-of-the-art manufacturing technologies in a country synonymous with the automotive industry, on Monday 6 July 2020 lifted the hood on its manufacturing processes to reveal some surprising secrets behind the success of Lexus.

The Lexus LC 500. Photo: Supplied

Takumi at heart of Lexus’ craftsmanship revolution

Described as a “craftsmanship revolution”, the carmaker’s on-going quest for the highest quality rests firmly, according to Lexus, on the shoulders of its specialist and traditional “craftsmen” known as Takumi.

Lexus uses the latest technology to design and build its cars, but people remain at the heart of everything the company does. While proud of its status as a human-focused company, Lexus relies on the skills of its Takumi craftspeople to achieve the finest quality and luxury standards.

The Takumi are dedicated artisans with talents believed to be “beyond compare”. They not only lead, but also train the men and women tasked with building  “a very special quality” into every Lexus made.

Their craftmanship extends from flawless stitch work and handcrafted woodwork to the production and assembly process itself.

Boasting centuries-old skills and techniques “which could never be replicated by a machine” Lexus deploys its Takumi alongside the robots and lasers to form a manufacturing environment in which tradition is integrated with tech.

‘Judgment of the human hand, eye and ear’

According to Lexus, to achieve perfect quality and a flawless finish, it’s the judgment of the human hand, eye and ear that count. And these are the talents of the Takumi, each of whom have dedicated their lives to developing particular skills.

The Takumi have a great heritage in Japanese history as a master craftsperson. Even today, achieving Takumi status takes years of dedication and training, with meticulous attention to detail and a commitment to excellence.

Highest honour among the ranks of engineers

  • At Lexus, each Takumi has a minimum of 30 years’ experience, giving them an unmatched depth of knowledge in their field. To bear the name is the highest honour among the ranks of engineers and it’s a privilege held by only a few.
  • Of the 7 700 workers at Lexus’s Miyata factory, just 19 are Takumi.
  • Every Takumi has a responsibility to pass on their skills to the next generation, ensuring that essential talents are maintained.
  • But just as much as they teach their human colleagues, they also contribute to designing better robots.
  • The Takumi provide vital insights when it comes to designing automated processes, to help gain the best results. For example, the motion of an automated paint-spraying arm matches the sweeping arm movement of a human master craftsperson.
  • The Lexus Takumi have a legendary sense of touch and use this sensitivity to detect the slightest imperfections, down to fractions of a millimetre – a level of accuracy a machine cannot match.
  • Furthermore, a machine can only find flaws it is programmed to detect, making the sharp eyes and fine fingers of the Takumi even more crucial.

Perfect silence: Skill and spirit

Motomachi is the home of Lexus’ LC flagship coupe, where eight Takumi lead quality teams that check every step in the car’s production. For example, when the bodywork has been stamped and welded together, a master craftsperson checks everything is perfectly aligned by sight and touch.

  • There are more than 800 individual checks to be made, combining human sense with electronic tools.
  • At the end of the production line, the finished vehicle moves into a futuristic light-filled glass booth to undergo a detailed inspection by two of the factory’s most skilled craftspeople, covering 700 different check points.
A Lexus Takumi seeks perfection. Photo: Supplied
  • Here they scrutinise details that even customers might never notice, such as the precision finish of surfaces inside and out, the evenness of colour and the operation of every working part.
  • All this, Lexus said, takes place in complete silence. Acute hearing is another Takumi skill, so that any abnormal sounds can be picked up and their source traced.
  • The final stage before a Lexus leaves the factory and heads for its new owner is a test drive on a purpose-built track. Again, it’s down to a craftsperson to ensure performance is exactly as it should be.

LS 500h flagship grille: Precision touch of a Takumi

Photo: Supplied

The spindle grille is a key feature of every new Lexus design. Each one comes with a distinctive mesh pattern that adds to the car’s character and visual impact. Of course, computer-aided design plays its part in creating a sophisticated network of lines and shapes, but the precision touches are the work of the Lexus Takumi.

Citing the grille on the LS 500h flagship sedan as an example, Lexus said computer modelling had set out the mesh pattern with reasonable accuracy. However, a skilled modeler then individually adjusted the curved surface of 5 000 separate motifs to achieve precisely the right effect. The task took six months to complete.

Every Takumi needs the right tools for the job, and will even craft them themselves if necessary. That’s the case with Yasuhiro Nakashima, who spent 27 years learning and honing his craft – filing, shaping and polishing the metal moulds used to make the LS’ spindle grille.

Photo: Supplied

He has made his own, customised set of tools, including hand-made bamboo instruments to shape the finer details. The machines and processes used to make the mould are among the best available, but the perfect finish still requires a remarkable human skill.

Nakashima refines surface smoothness to within a tenth of a millimetre – picking out imperfections even the best robotic milling technology cannot detect – and hand-polishes minute surfaces in specific directions to achieve the best reflective qualities.

So crucial are his skills to the process, he actually worked with the LS’ design team to ensure the best outcome.

‘Stitching dojo’

The beautiful stitched seams of the leather upholstery inside a new Lexus may look simple and elegant, but they take tremendous skill to achieve. For a flawless finish, every stitch has to be precise, every time.

Led by a Takumi, a dedicated and highly skilled team are responsible for the stitchwork, selected for their dexterity and attention to detail.

Very few make the grade and there are just 12 in the team at Lexus’s Miyata factory.

Each team member has had to train at a stitching dojo – like a formal martial arts class – for three months, under the Takumi’s direction.

Ten different techniques have to be mastered before they can progress to production work.

So what goes into steering a Lexus…perfectly?

A wooden steering wheel is one of the traditional hallmarks of a luxury vehicle, but where Lexus’ shimamoku wood is concerned, the production is unique.

Shimamoku has a distinctive pattern of ebony and grey graining that’s similar to exotic and rare timbers, such as zebrano. It’s a combination of natural material and man-made techniques that creates an object that is both simple and complex – a quality the Japanese call “shibumi”.

Sheets of wood less than 1mm thick are shaved from hardwood logs, then stained and treated to achieve a mottled effect. The sheets are stacked in alternating bands of contrasting colours, bonded with glue and clamped.

Once set fast, the wood is sliced length ways to create new layers with the special shimamoku pattern.

This is a job that involves three different suppliers and 67 separate processes, and takes 38 days to complete, with much skilled hand-work in bonding the veneers onto a solid wood form, sealing and polishing.

The Lexus LS 500. Photo: Supplied
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Author: Onlineautos