05/02/2014—Susan Graves is feeling for defects, running her fingers across a suspended bumper in pursuit of blots and blotches, bumps and blemishes. Nearby, under white lighting, her colleagues perform similar tasks, always on the lookout for flaws. Sometimes they’ll shut their eyes, heightening their sense of touch to more accurately locate faults.

Graves is one of a select group of Lexus team members tasked with identifying potential problems, no matter how small, in plastic components. She trained intensively for a month to do this one specific job.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon and Graves’s Lexus plant, in Cambridge, Ontario, bustles. Currently the only Lexus manufacturing center outside Japan, the Cambridge plant has built the Lexus RX since 2003 and more recently the RX 450h hybrid vehicle.

Such is the plant’s success that Lexus will soon open a second factory in North America: beginning in 2015, the ES 350 will be assembled in Georgetown, Kentucky.

In Cambridge, as in every Lexus plant, there are team members who apply sealant, wipe hoods clean of lint, or maintain precision machinery that creates foam-injected dashboards. In assembly, it’s one employee’s job to make sure the right sound—a reassuring thud—reverberates when a passenger door slams shut. (A revolving team will open and close doors all day, bringing attention to any vehicle lacking the correct kind of closing clunk.)

On average, it takes only 24 hours to produce a single RX 350, which is impressive considering that approximately 2,400 components must come together flawlessly. Parts are fitted with painstaking precision and checked repeatedly by team members throughout the assembly process, which is aided by what specialists call the “Godzilla machine” (shown below), a giant high-tech arm that quickly and delicately transfers entire vehicle frames around the plant.

Graves’s colleague Luc Haman (below) oversees a shift of the factory’s weld shop, the only department in which robots dominate the line. Mechanical arms piece panels together, set parts into place, and transfer vehicle components onto a slow-moving assembly line. Still, despite the precision with which machinery can perform certain tasks, Haman says he can’t imagine robots ever running the weld shop entirely. Why?

“You need craftsmanship,” he explains, “especially for judging.”

A case in point: the install process. Here, team members carry out the shop’s 12 necessary human welds. (Machines handle all welds except those that involve sections of the vehicle a customer can see or experience.) It’s here, too, that team members measure and correct gaps between adjacent body panels—the hood and the fender, for example—making sure divisions are as accurate as possible.

Mostly, team members will use electronic sensors to measure spaces digitally, but their dexterity training is so extensive that sometimes they’ll rely on their fingers, which can detect a correct width as thin as a piece of pencil lead.

Like Haman, Brian King begins his day at 7 a.m., with a meeting designed to pinpoint production risks or issues, breakdowns, or quality concerns. King runs the Cambridge plant’s paint shop, a laboratory-like space flooded with bright white light.

The painting area (above) is hermetically sealed to control the spread of airborne dust particles, and team members pass through air showers before entering. Overalls help reduce lint (lint is the worst nightmare of the paint-shop team member—it can interfere with quality control both here and farther down the line), and boots are washed and dried at least twice daily.

As in the weld shop, robots contribute in the painting area. They apply primer, topcoat, and sealant in hard-to-reach places. But here, too, human craftsmanship is essential. Paint-shop team members are trained rigorously, often only in one skill at a time. It takes six weeks for a sealer to reach a line-ready level of ability, for example—a process that includes lessons in technique and the specifics of application, as well as training in Lexus-customer expectations.

King describes their process, shown below, as an art. A good sealer, he says, combines a quality-focused mindset with above-average dexterity, and must be picky and fussy. In the past three years, only one car has left the sealer line with a defect. (A piece of sealant wasn’t applied properly, a minor problem that was easily fixed.) One car in three years. A statistical blip. A minor anomaly. But King still shudders when it’s mentioned.

Ray Tanguay knows how King feels. The Cambridge plant’s chairman, Tanguay is proud of the staff members he’s assembled. He’s proud of the cars they produce. And he’s proud of the plant in which they produce them.

But he’s not entirely happy.

At age 64, he continues to be driven by one question: how do we make the cars even better? “It’s about trying to continuously improve,” he says.

Tanguay is sitting in the factory’s art-filled boardroom. He has just been asked to outline exactly what makes a Lexus a Lexus.

“We build cars with senses rather than just specifications,” he says. “It’s more emotional.”

He pauses, folds his right hand into his left and looks up. “Skill set and mindset,” he says. “That’s what makes a Lexus a Lexus.”


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