How Toyota SA navigated severe flooding

7th February 2023

On the 18th April 2022, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster when heavy rainfall led to severe flooding and landslides in KwaZulu-Natal, causing the death of 448 people and destroying over 12,000 houses, while displacing a further 40,000 people. Many businesses also suffered from the damage, including leading car manufacturer, Toyota South Africa Motors. 

On the 12th of April at 5:30, Toyota management breathed a short-lived sigh of relief when staff on site sent pictures of no damage from the reported flooding, with the rain beginning to subside at its Durban production plant, which produces popular vehicles like the Corolla Cross and Quest, Hilux, Fortuner, Hino, and more.

By 6:20am, the plant was under 1.5 metres of mud. “What had happened was when the Shongweni Dam sluice gates released at capacity, it sent a deluge of water all the way down the Umlazi River that broke through its banks as it wasn’t able to cope with that volume of water, explains Andrew Kirby, CEO at Toyota SA. That then hit nearby empty container yards, sending containers down the N2 in flood water.

The financial impact was severe, with extensive damage across the 87 hectare site including electrical, mechanical, and IT equipment. “Toyota had to order just over 100 000 new equipment parts to replace the damaged ones, while around 4300 flood-damaged vehicles had to be crushed”, says Kirby. Despite a top disaster management executive stating that it was the most extensive damage to any production facility within Toyota globally, swift action from both Toyota and its partner’s management teams enabled the plant to bounce back to production in a mere 3 months.

Industrial robotics partner Yaskawa Southern Africa worked closely with Toyota to establish a priority list of repairs. “We brought every available person from all Yaskawa branches throughout South Africa to our Durban branch to assist,” recalls Andrew Crackett, Managing Director at Yaskawa Southern Africa. “Temporary/casual labour along with an international team of Yaskawa experts were also sent to Durban, whose members comprised of colleagues from the UK, Germany, and Japan". 

With no immediate spares on hand, as they first needed to be expedited around the globe and no user manual for repairing damage to this extent, Yaskawa’s team were required to think on their feet and consistently come up with new ideas to be successful. In the end, approximately 400 robot controllers and 600 welding devices were successfully repaired, a noteworthy feat for a team that had never dealt with a project of this magnitude before.

Crackett noted that Yaskawa Southern Africa had learnt helpful lessons from the disaster. “We now know how to recover flooded equipment and what type of facility is required. We also learnt by hard experience, what worked and did not work when it came to money and time. One of the other key lessons was maintaining open and honest communication with the customer. Their understanding of our progress was key to everyone's planning and expectations”.

Similar sentiments were echoed by Toyota, with Kirby stating that while “It is not something we’d ever wish on anyone, the challenges helped us to grow and develop our capabilities and resilience – as an organisation – to be able to survive and even flourish.” The leading car company’s new internal slogan recovery is called Rebuilding Better Together. This philosophy speaks to working together as a team, while using crisis situations to improve future site planning. As of September 2022, Toyota’s Durban plant has regained its full production.