Giving back: Toyota STEAMs ahead with generous investment in Huntsville community

single-meta-cal November 27, 2017

City Blog is taking a look at the good work performed by corporate citizens. Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama, with its 1.1 million square foot headquarters in North Huntsville, where one-third of Toyota engines in America are produced, has contributed some $8 million to charitable projects in North Alabama over the past 15 years.

With row after row of gleaming, futuristic machinery, sometimes it can be easy to forget that it’s real, live human beings that make those robots work.

It’s real, live human beings who are dedicated to making the Toyota engines produced in Huntsville dependable and efficient.

And it’s real, live human beings who are dedicated to making their hometown a better place to live.

I just feel like it’s the right thing to do, and within the Toyota world, it’s something we’ve always done.”

Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama (TMMAL) has been in place for 15 years at its North Huntsville location. In that time, the organization has donated more than $8 million to charitable efforts in the Huntsville area.

“At Toyota, it’s what we do,” says David Fernandes, president of TMMAL for the past two years. “Being involved in the community is a big part of our vision and our charter. I just feel like it’s the right thing to do, and within the Toyota world, it’s something we’ve always done.”

Toyota has been a major sponsor for Panoply, Huntsville’s spring-time arts festival, and supports other events.

However, much of its effort is geared toward two important corporate points of emphasis, the environment and STEAM education – science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics, which has become a significant part of the curriculum in local school systems.

Recently, Toyota helped construct a new kayak launch point on the Flint River at Hays Nature Preserve to ease things for the hundreds of people who canoe and kayak the river. It is on the ground floor of a new Land Trust project on Chapman Mountain that will be an educational and recreational facility. It was a pioneer in the tree-planting effort at John Hunt Park as part of the National Public Lands Day program.

Partnership with STEAM Works

One of the most recent gifts from TMMAL is a $90,000 donation to Huntsville STEAM Works, a non-profit that encourages innovation in those disciplines. It will fund a “Mobile Fab Lab.”

It will be a traveling collection – in a big Toyota, vehicle – naturally – of high-tech gizmos like 3D printers, laser cutters and robotics.

“It really was just a natural fit,” says Kim Ogle, external affairs analyst at TMMAL. “It gives us the opportunity, through Huntsville STEAM Works, to reach students and hopefully spark their interest in pursuing STEAM education in the manufacturing vein.”

The mobile lab should hit the streets by next spring and it will be taken at no charge to local schools and organizations where youngsters can be exposed to the technology.

The doors to the Toyota facility have already been wide-open to student groups, hoping to intrigue a potential future workforce.

Toyota is also trying to demonstrate that science and technology is not the realm of just one sex. It contributed $150,000 last spring to Tech Trek, a program through UAH in which middle-school girls can attend a week-long residential camp with hands-on experience in STEM activities.

As Ogle says, “STEAM education feeds into our workforce development. Our company has been successful because of its team members.” Taking Toyota to a potential workforce can help bring a workforce to Toyota.

Fernandes leading the way

David Fernandes is wearing a demin-esque jacket, casual slacks and lacks only a pair of protective goggles from looking as if he could be right there on the assembly line floor. That’s another part of the corporate culture, where the company president doesn’t live in a $5,000 suit and an ivory tower.

Fernandes is a former college baseball player at Indiana State, but he let his education get in the way. He had an opportunity in a co-op program with Allison Engines/Rolls Royce in Indianapolis.

“It was my first taste of manufacturing and I went in and just fell in love,” he says. “Making things was interesting to me. It was aircraft manufacturing and I got in there and was engulfed in the process of making a project.”

As he climbed the ladder at Rolls Royce, ultimately becoming general manager of the Indianapolis facility, he was well-aware of the cutting-edge work being done at Toyota plants. He visited the operation in Buffalo, W.Va., “and they were 100 years ahead of anything I had seen.”

He accepted a job group leader at the factory that specialized in making transmissions, beginning his 19-year career with Toyota, going from the West Virginia site to Kentucky and ultimately to Huntsville.

“What’s been neat to me here at the Huntsville plant is to know we’re only 15 years old, and to see the accomplishments made here,” he says. “We’re making roughly 3,000 engines a day and our team members are working hard to meet customer demands. It’s a very bright future. The sky is the limit here.”