Toyota's North American operation is developing a system to ensure customers get exactly the right cars as quickly as possible, Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America president and CEO Atsushi Niimi told the Traverse City automotive industry conference in Michigan on Thursday.

"Another exciting initiative for us is using information technology to better link our dealers, our plants, and our customers... getting them the exact vehicle they want in the shortest amount of time," Niimi said.

He described a customer leaving the dealership with a car from stock not quite to his preferred specification as "semi-satisfied". Niimi said the new system would allow a buyer to visit any Toyota dealer and custom-order any of the nine vehicles built in North America and get it in a matter of weeks.

"Someone who wants a white Sienna with a sunroof will no longer have to settle for the blue Sienna that is on the dealer's lot," Niimi claimed. "The order goes from the showroom... to the plant floor... to the dealer... to the customer's driveway."

Dealers will also be able to exchange cars with other dealers to try and get the exact vehicle the customer wants, he added.

The Toyota executive said the new system would bring "significant benefits" to dealers.

"They can reduce their inventories... and if they realise that a certain vehicle combination is 'hot' in their region, they can alter their future vehicle orders with a very short lead-time," Niimi said.

He noted that developing this system of "customer-oriented production" required a major re-engineering of all components of Toyota's supply chain... and an integration of activities between sales and manufacturing divisions in North America.

Niimi said Toyota studied the industry leaders in customisation such as Dell Computer.

"But, I do not think we are planning to use their advertising slogan... 'Dude, you're getting a Tundra!'," Niimi joked.

He said Toyota began work on the project in 1998, and is just now rolling it out to dealers. The development team had to be certain that all the elements would mesh together using the foundations of the Toyota Production System.

"The name of the game is flexibility on the manufacturing side," JD Power and Associates director of North American forecasting, Jeffrey Schuster, told the Detroit News. "We're envisioning mass customisation for the consumer at some point well beyond where we are now."

Toyota's move puts the pressure on competitors to speed up their own work on such systems, Schuster reportedly said.

"Manufacturers can save considerable sums of money by not having vehicles sit in inventory," CSM Worldwide vice president of global forecasting, Michael Robinet, said, according to the newspaper. "Toyota hasn't had a problem in that area but they don't want to develop a problem."

The Detroit News noted that, at the start, Toyota customers will only be able to choose from a few options, such as colour and basic style, but the goal is to allow them to select a wide array of features.

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