Toyota engineers complete newest Sienna minivan remotely out of Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor engineers get creative designing from home

Toyota Senior Engineering Manager David Burke as he works on a component for the newest Sienna. (Toyota)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Right as Toyota’s Research and Development team in Ann Arbor was set to put the final touches on the company’s newest minivan in March, the state of Michigan shut down.

Forced to work remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ann Arbor team got to work finding innovative solutions for making adjustments to the new generation of Sienna from home.

From making a mock-up of a flexible fabric with a hobbyist 3D printer to using their own tools to test out parts, the engineering team used their creativity to add final touches during the last stage of the minivan’s development.

Right before Michigan’s shelter-in-place order went into effect, members were able to visit a Toyota plant in Indiana to see a production trial of the new Sienna. According to Toyota Chief Engineer Monte Kaehr, the timing was lucky.

Team members were able to get an idea of the changes they needed to make, they just had to come up with ways of making them from home.

“A lot of what we’re doing in this later phase is kind of fit-and-finish optimization -- putting final touches on the vehicles,” said Kaehr. “So, that is difficult to do with just CAD sometimes.”

The team couldn’t totally rely on just the design software so engineers built components of the vehicle and tested them at home. One engineer even tested a component with a bench vice in his own garage to make sure new changes were acceptable.

Toyota Engineer Kyle Steinkamp works remotely by utilizing his own tools to make adjustments. (Toyota)

The Ann Arbor team also had to switch to a paperless approval system to move the changes along faster. Previously, the team would use paper drawings, in addition to its CAD system, which took a lot of time to pass around for approval.

While the team had started to go paperless; “This absolutely sped up the process of the transformation,” Kaehr said.

Another innovative way the team worked remotely was through video calls and pictures, according to Kaehr. Members of the Ann Arbor team would work in tandem with teams in Indiana who could go into the plant and show the Ann Arbor engineers specific parts of the vehicle.

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Kaehr said that at this point in the vehicle’s production, engineers are usually in a plant working on little details to make sure they fully understand how all of the parts fit into place. Working remoting was a new way of doing that.

“It has been a real learning experience, “Kaehr said. ”We’ve learned that we can do a lot more from home than we ever expected and it’s certainly going to drive a cultural shift long-term and well after COVID-19. I think it’s going to allow us to be much more flexible in how we do the work.”

About the Author:

Sarah has worked for WDIV since June 2018. She covers community events, good eats and small businesses in Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in Applied Linguistics from Grand Valley State University.