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Ute and van fit out meets market demand

Toyota is quietly celebrating the tenth anniversary of the van and ute fit out operation at its Thames Vehicle Operations facility.

It is a one stop shop to customise new Hilux Utes, Land Cruisers and Hiace vans to fleet buyers’ requirements before they take delivery of the vehicle.

The fit out operation uses part of Toyota’s reactivated assembly plant which stopped vehicle assembly operations in October 1998 and is now also used to refurbish and comply Toyota’s Signature Class second hand cars.

Seven staff work full time on the fit out operation, with more people moving over from the Signature Class work when the demand requires. At its peak last year, 160 vehicles a month were moving through the fit out area.

All the staff are trained assembly line operators, many of them having worked at the plant for 20 years or more.

“If dealers carry out this work, vehicles often have to be shifted around several suppliers to have the work completed,” said Allan Benson, the plant’s supply manager. “Here it all happens in the one place.”

“It is more cost effective and reduces the chance of damage because the vehicles aren’t being trucked around nearly as much.”

Lead times are also reduced. “Once we get an order we can order the parts from various suppliers and usually get onto the job within a few days.” said Mr. Benson.

And because the fit out operation is run on assembly plant lines, Thames has an inventory of commonly used parts on hand at all times, supplied on projections of future need.

Work carried out is for customers across a wide range of industries and large companies, such as quarry and forestry operators, power companies, Fonterra and Kiwi Rail.

The most common equipment fitted includes a deck liner, canopy and tow bar on the Hilux, followed by roof racks, which are also common on the Hiace, together with drawers and shelving systems. There is also a call for specialised customisation, such as racks for securing gas bottles, generators or welding equipment.”

“Our staff does most of the work,” said Mr. Benson. “If things get too specialised we get experts in to do the work on site.”

All vehicles moving through the fit out area have been ordered by Toyota’s larger fleet customers and are often repeat business. “No two are ever the same,” said Mr Benson. “Big companies are constantly refining the way they spec. their vehicles.”

Vehicles move through nine adjacent bays in the factory where specialist equipment is positioned for specific tasks.

Tow bars are hydraulically raised into position under the vehicle on a hoist, ready for fitting. Canopies are lowered into place on ute wellsides using a simple overhead conveyor system.

Toyota uses assembly line processes to operate the fit out area. Canopies are supplied 11 at a time on a special trailer from the supplier and tow bars arrive in batches of 14.

“We can do the new vehicle pre-delivery checks that every new vehicle gets,” said Mr. Benson.

All extras fitted to the vehicles at Thames have the same three year warranty as the rest of the new ute or van.

Apart from alloy trays fitted to cab – chassis models all the parts from outside suppliers are sourced from New Zealand companies.

“The volume and complexity of the operation has grown over the years.”

Ten years ago the operation started by simply fitting standard Toyota accessories. Now anything and everything is possible.