Toyota joins several other automakers rethinking body structure

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(April 16, 2015) It looks like VW, Renault and Volvo aren’t the only companies chasing after modular vehicle architectures. Now Toyota has entered the fray with  the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA). This integrated powertrain and platform strategy development program includes tactical component sharing, and should reduce the pull on its resources by 20 percent.

In addition to cutting costs, saving resources and reducing vehicle development time, Toyota claims it also is adopting measures that will improve the fundamental performance and appeal of its cars.

By rethinking the body structure, Toyota says it should be able to increase structural rigidity by 30% - 65%, and raise this further by incorporating more laser welding. Sill sections appear to be deeper, and the structure has been modified to optimize the load path along the full length of each panel instead of in the area surrounding
the welds. This should allow engineers to place metal where they need it, and take it away from where they don’t, while cutting weight and improving crash performance.

Toyota will launch the first new vehicle built off an optimized mid-size, front-drive platform later this year. It will be followed by new platform for compact and large front-drive vehicles, and rear-drive platform in the coming years. By 2020, it expects that half the vehicles it sells worldwide will be built off one of these modular platforms. Like VW, it hopes to drive down costs and reinvest at least some of the savings in new safety and infotainment technologies.

Powertrains are being redeveloped alongside the platforms in order to lower each vehicle’s center of gravity, reduce component weight and size, and create global designs that can be built and sold anywhere.

Toyota claims the fuel efficiency of its powertrains has increased approximately 25%, while power output is up more than 15%; both gains are due to improvements in thermal and transmission efficiency. Hybrids are also undergoing a redesign, with new layouts and smaller electric motors, inverters and batteries expected to bring a 15% increase in hybrid fuel economy. The first of these new powertrains will launch this year.

Despite its reputation for production efficiency, Toyota has a number of plants that are underutilized. Thus, it put a freeze on new production plants in order to focus its resources on getting the most out of the plants it already has in place. Since 2013, Toyota has focused its efforts on linking same-model production across multiple plants so that it could make use of the smallest capacity surpluses at each site.

Global line utilization has increased from 70% in 2009 to 90% today, and should rise higher still. And while the rollout of TNGA powertrains and platforms will temporarily increase investment costs, Toyota expects to cut the capital necessary to launch a new model production line by half, compared to 2008 levels. In addition, the use of common parts among multiple TNGA platforms should allow multiple platforms and powertrains to be added to a line for mixed production, and adjust the model mix to changes in demand.

If that isn’t enough, Toyota claims it is nearing the point where the investment cost of a new plant has been cut by 40%, compared to 2008 levels. The idea behind this change is to make plans competitive independent of volume. One way to accomplish this is to replace equipment bolted to the floor or suspended from the ceiling with compact production equipment that can be installed on top of the floor. Another is to reduce the size and environment la impact of the paint shops vis downsizing.

With its head start, VW should be well along the path to platform modularity, but the number of discrete models and the costs associated with changing over to this new way of designing and building vehicles may force the German automaker to stretch out the rollout of this idea. If this happens, Toyota — which is sitting on a large war chest — could catch up, if not pass, VW in the coming years. However, it will have to face competition of its own as automakers like Ford adopt the same ideas and apply them to a lineup that already has been globalized. Plus, suppliers will have an incentive to cajole their customers toward components and systems that are similar to, if not the same.

As this happens, the pressure to increase differentiation in terms of equipment, styling, performance, fuel efficiency and handling will rise as the rest of the vehicle is commoditized.

The Virtual Driver