Behind the scenes at one of the country’s biggest car factories

Car making has been one of the motors of the Czech Republic’s economic boom of recent years, and for this edition of Panorama I’ve come to one of the centres of the country’s motor industry. The central Bohemian town of Kolín – around 50 kilometres from Prague – is home to one of country’s biggest and most modern car factories. The Toyota, Peugeot and Citroen automobiles plant – commonly referred to as TPCA – produces an incredible 1100 cars every day. It’s spokesman – and our guide today – is Radek Kňava.

“There are more than 3,500 people and majority of them are from this region. The project started in 2000 and production started at the end of February 2005. Since then we produced more then 700 000 cars.

“Workers start at 6.30 and work till 7.11. The time is calculated according to the needs of our production. One minute equals one car. We know that we have to have 581 minutes of production…”

Toyota claims to have the most efficient production system in the world. The working cycle of the workers at the assembly line lasts exactly 57 seconds. They are trained to perform four to five different operations. They do each of them for two hours and then they rotate. My original idea to talk to them right on the spot turned out to be very naïve – with this working speed no one has time to speak to me.

Photo: archive of CRo 7 - Radio Prague
I put on a helmet and protective glasses and get on a train along with a group of high school kids who have also come for a visit. For someone who has never visited any plant the sight of the production hall is amazing. The hall covers 300,000 square metres and at one time there are around 1,200 workers. It’s incredibly busy and there are traffic signs and lines to direct the operation.

“We produce a lot of cars and almost one hundred percent is for export. The biggest market is Italy, France, Great Britain and Netherlands.

“We divide our production into four main areas. The first is stamping, the second one is welding, than there is final assembly and paint shop. Now we are in the welding shops. Here we have more than two hundred robots. These big robots are for manipulation because our factory is in two floors. We call these robots “godzillas”, but they are originally from Japan.”

One thing you can’t fail to notice are signs with slogans hanging everywhere, such as “quality today, success tomorrow”. Radek Kňava explains:

“The main philosophy of our company from the very beginning is that quality is the first issue, because customers expect best quality. We have to communicate to every employee that this is our main priority and they have to produce the best quality.”

Apart from quality TPCA has other principles of production. One of them is the Japanese term “kaisen” which means constant improvement; employees are encouraged to keep looking for ways how to improve the production. Toyota has also developed a special system of managing supplies - “just in time”. The main idea is to lower the inventory to a minimum and to speed up the production. I myself find it hard to believe that production in TPCA could be even more efficient than it already is.

I admit that my original intention behind my visit to TPCA was to find out how Czechs, who don’t have the reputation of being really hard-working, adjust to the Japanese system of work. But after seeing the plant, I realize there is no point asking. Prospective employees undergo an extensive training and if they can’t adapt to the system, they simply don’t work here.

On the second floor above the production hall there are offices, or rather one huge office with dozens of people sitting side by side at their computers. Here I talk to some of the foreign employees about their work experience in the Czech Republic:

“Honestly speaking, Japanese are not so familiar with the Czech Republic. If we tell someone that you we are going to the Czech Republic, everyone thinks that it is still Czechoslovakia. So honestly speaking, I didn’t know what to expect. I was very surprised. It is very nice and developed.

“I am originally from Paris. But I lived in Argentina for seven years before coming to the Czech Republic so I have experience with living abroad. In Czech Republic we feel that we are already in Europe. Recent history of Czech Republic gives it certain particularities that we can notice, not in TPCA but for example in Prague, we still see things that remain from the previous way of dealing with things.”

When it was built in 2005, the TPCA was the biggest investment of its kind in the Czech Republic. Now it’s being overtaken by another project, a Hyundai car plant in Moravia’s Nošovice, which is due to begin rolling out cars in September. Between TPCA and the Škoda Auto car maker in Mladá Boleslav the Czech Republic is already producing around one million cars every year. The auto industry looks like remaining a main engine for the Czech economy for many years to come.