From Minden to Toyota City
By Darren Lum
Published June 19, 2018
The next time you see a 2019 Toyota Rav 4 you might just catch the influence of the Highlands, if you look really closely.
Jake Walker, Haliburton Highlands Secondary School alumnus, is part of the team of engineers at the Cambridge-based Toyota plant responsible for the work on the car’s chassis.
The electrical engineer and project specialist with Toyota says when he’s in Japan working for the automotive giant he will sometimes look out his hotel room window and appreciate how far he has literally and figuratively come.
“Minden and Haliburton are very unique to anywhere in the world. Looking out my hotel window to the large city of Nagoya, Tokyo, or even Toyota City (depending on where I am at the time), it’s very busy. It’s a small country with a large population (compared to Minden anyway),” he wrote in an email. Walker attended Archie Stouffer Elementary School before heading to HHSS.
When he went to Japan last year he had a few days to himself. He took advantage of the time to engage with the country and partake in unique experiences such as driving a go-kart while wearing a Yoshi costume. (Yoshi is a character from popular Nintendo video games.)
According to his mother, Nancy Walker, who works at J. Douglas Hodgson Elementary School, Jake may not be a gamer or a car person in the traditional sense, but he loves Japan and appreciates working for Toyota.
“From my experience, the Japan culture is centred around respect. Kids are taught respect for their elders at a very young age. The service industry is incredible. No matter what store, restaurant, or hotel you’re in, the customer is treated with the upmost respect. There’s no such thing as tipping anywhere, which proves even further that people here enter into the service industry with the sole understanding that their job is to make sure the customer is happy,” he wrote.
Over the past few months, the national train service company made headlines when they apologized for trains leaving a station early by less than a minute.
“The other really incredible thing about scheduling is that trains always leave on time, never early, never late. This is because so many people rely on public transportation to get to and from work, if a train was to leave at any time other than when is scheduled, someone could be late for work,” he wrote.
There is a sense of safety in Japan unlike anywhere else, Walker said.
“Back in the fall, I was on the subway at 9 p.m. at night. Sitting across from me was a child all by herself. She couldn’t have been more than 10 years old. It’s completely normal for parents to trust that their child is safe,” he wrote. “Another thing I’ve observed is that there’s very little theft. This is also something that seems to be rooted in respect. A friend of mine was touring through Osaka once. He set his camera on a rock to take a picture of him in front of a temple. After being finished, he forgot his camera and walked away. It was until 30 minutes later that he remembered it and ran back to get it.
By that time it had started raining so now he was worried that it wasn’t going to be there anymore or if it was still there, it would be soaked and ruined. When he got back to the rock, not only was it still there, but someone set a newspaper on top of it to keep it out of the rain.”
Although he appreciates these differences and the opportunities Japan offers, there’s nothing like home.
“The biggest thing that I miss about Canada while working in Japan is not being home with my wife, Breana. It’s great to experience a different culture and be so embedded, learn a different language, and be surrounded by great people, but it’s always difficult being away from family for so long,” he wrote.
Walker never really knew what he wanted to be when he finished high school in 2007; he returned to high school for one more year.
“All I knew was that I was good with numbers. So, I looked into engineering programs. I found University of Waterloo and picked it because of how well renowned its co-op engineering program was. I was lucky enough to get in,” he said.
“I got my post-secondary education at the University of Waterloo (Bachelor of Applied Science in Electrical Engineering). It was a really great program because it consisted of mandatory co-op placements. It extended my overall time in school but I benefited greatly from the job placements. Not only did I make money while I was in school, but I gained a lot of really important practical experience and made a ton of connections,” he wrote.
He appreciates the opportunity working for one of the largest automakers in the world, Toyota.
“I work for a very reputable company with a lot of very smart people with one common goal of producing a car that creates a happy customer. It’s also rewarding to be responsible for such a significant portion of something the world has never seen before (a new major vehicle model),” he wrote, referring to the 2019 Rav4.
Walker and his team were responsible for designing and implementing tooling, equipment and processes to assemble the 2019 Rav4.
“In general my job consists of collaborating with the Toyota design team in Japan to optimize vehicle design. The optimization requires balancing industry standards and rules, visual appeal and features (usually based on competitors’ features), and part design to make it efficient to assemble in the plant and disassemble once sold to the public. We need to consider how the individual parts are designed so that they’re easy to package, ship, remove from packaging, transport, and then put together with other parts and eventually go onto the car. If parts are just simply too heavy to handle by one person (an engine block for example), my team and I need to design certain equipment that can either automatically install the part to the vehicle (like a robot) or something that can be used by an assembly worker that alleviates the ergonomic burden. Another part of my job involves the procurement of large manufacturing equipment used to build the vehicle.”
Close to the end of April, he visited Japan for close to two weeks to work with the production and maintenance team.
While there he was tasked to “approve a new piece of equipment that will be used to create a vacuum on the brake system, fill the brake system with brake fluid while simultaneously creating a vacuum in the HVAC system to be filled with AC fluid further down the production line. My job consists of being responsible for the overall approval of that equipment so they can confirm it and ship it to our plant to be installed and used. I need to consider all of our corporate KPIs (key performance indicators) including safety, quality, productivity, and cost. Is the equipment safe to use? Does the equipment ensure proper quality for the assembly of the vehicle including process checks and pokayokes (Japanese term for fail-safe)? How does the equipment ensure that the proper design requirements for that system are met? Is the equipment capable of performing its full operations in our takt time (since a new car runs off the production line once every 70 seconds, every piece of equipment needs to be able to complete its cycle within that time)? Is the cost of the equipment within our allotted budget?”
Walker also has a patent to his name.
“So, I patented the application of using a smart watch to listen to a section of time while building the car. Because the assembly of a vehicle is very repetitive and standardized, the sound of one process is very repeatable. Therefore, my application just listens to a 60 second section of work and creates a sound profile of what it’s supposed to sound like. After the sound profile is created, we switch it to audit mode. If the watch (being worn by the assembler) picks up a sound signature that deviates from what a normal process sounds like, it sends a signal to our line control system that there’s an abnormality. At that point, a team leader gets notified that there’s an abnormality and the production line stops until the team leader goes over and fixes the abnormality. The purpose of this is to further ensure that the vehicle is assembled properly without defects,” he wrote.
The name of the patent is Connection Confirmation Using Acoustic Data (United States US 9,847,009 B2). It was issued December of 2017.
When asked where the idea came from, Walker defers to his team.
“As an assembly engineering team, we are always looking for better ways to build the car. We identified an opportunity to improve (Kaizen = Continuous Improvement) on the way we build cars to ensure the customer gets the best car possible,” he wrote about the technology used by Toyota.
He is proud of how his work is used by people around the world.
“It’s a very busy place to work, but I definitely take pride in knowing that all of our hard work contributes to something that will eventually be used everywhere around the world,” he wrote.
Before he joined Toyota for a university co-op placement, Walker had worked four months with the Canadian company, BlackBerry, as part of another co-op placement.
“BlackBerry was interesting to work for in that it was amazing being a part of building a brand new phone no one has ever seen before. But everyone knows the problems Blackberry had. Toyota, while in a completely different industry employs a very different business practice that works very well but I think the biggest difference is the mentality on employees that the culture fosters,” he wrote.
The culture of Toyota is part of the Japanese identity.
“The Japanese culture is very disciplined. It’s ingrained into children from a young age to be respectful of rules, respectful of their elders, and to work very, very hard,” he wrote.
Besides Walker’s professional standing, he was a highly decorated curler. He won many curling championships, which included a world junior Canadian championship and a third place at the world junior championships in 2010. His experience in athletics, he said, was relevant to his professional success.
“Curling has taught me many things including patience, strategic thinking, discipline, and being a leader. All of these traits have helped me in my professional career. I honestly don’t think I would be where I was today without my 20 years of involvement in competitive curling,” he wrote.
Capping off his university time was winning the Totzke Award winner, as the athlete of the year in 2014 at the University of Waterloo.
His message to students is simple: be ready to work, open to learning, whatever that might mean for each individual.
“If I could get a message to anyone at HHSS trying to figure out what they want to do with their life, it would be work hard, gain experience, develop your professional and personal assets (I call these my career assets), and don’t be afraid to do something outside of your comfort zone. In my opinion, experience is more valuable than money. Try to diversify yourselves,” he wrote.
“Take the time to educate yourselves. This doesn’t even mean that you need a post-secondary education. Sure, having a post-secondary education helps because it’s a mode of education. But there are many different ways to educate yourself. Just take the stream that works for you, your passions, your skills, and the skills you wish to have. Bottom line is: Nothing is easy in life. Those that are successful work very, very hard for it. Also, put yourself out there and meet new people. In general, if you’re nice to someone, that person is likely to be nice back to you. Then you make a new connection. Once you have a network of connections, good things will happen.”