|By Tammy Joyner, The Atlanta
Journal-ConstitutionMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
August 30, 2010 --That flushing sound coming from the Southside of metro Atlanta is nearly two decades of toilet-making for one of the world's largest toilet manufacturers.
In Japan, Toto Ltd. has been the king of porcelain thrones for nearly a century. It's hardly a household name in the United States, but chances are you've sat on or soaked in one of its bathroom products, which are made or assembled in Clayton County and the south Fulton County communities of Fairburn and Lakewood.
Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has them. So does Harrah's, Caesar's Palace and other hotels and casinos in Las Vegas. The company even christened one of its toilets the Clayton, a 17 1/2-inch high model that derives its look from traditional American furniture.
In addition to making luxury toilets for homes and businesses in the United States, the 230,000-square-foot facility near Clayton County's Southlake Mall is headquarters for the Japanese company's operations in North America, South America, Central America and the Caribbean.
Toto's U.S. operations also include the Fairburn facility, which is a distribution center for the Americas for Toto's flagship toilet, the Neorest, a $5,600 porcelain spa of sorts that comes with a built-in bidet and remote control. (Actress Whoopi Goldberg became a fan of the Neorest after she bought one for herself. She now gives the $600 seats as gifts.) The Clayton facility near Morrow also oversees an assembly plant in Ontario, Calif., and a production plant in Monterey, Mexico. Many of the products are exported throughout the Americas.
"We run the Americas out of this office," said Bill Strang, Toto USA's vice president of operations.
Clayton became the company's U.S. hub because of Georgia's ample supply of clay, a vital ingredient in making porcelain toilets, said Daijiro "DJ" Nogata, president of Toto's Americas Holdings Inc.
Tax and labor incentives didn't hurt either.
"We had confidence we had good performance in the U.S. market," Nogata said. The company has quietly settled into the region and taken an active part in several environmental initiatives that affect all of metro Atlanta, helping to craft a strategy in the state's water wars.
"This company is one of many that have considered the southside in the past and the present as their economic headquarters," said Clayton County Commission chairman Eldrin Bell. "We're delighted they're here and through our chamber of commerce will make every effort to keep them here."
Toto began making toilets in 1917 in Japan, where it has 60 percent of the market.
It set its sights on the U.S. market in the mid-1980s, opening a small office in Orange County, Calif. The company started U.S. production of toilets in 1991 after buying former competitor Eljer's factory in the Lakewood area. From there, U.S. production took off. By 1996, Toto had bought and gutted an old equipment-making plant near Morrow, turning it into a state-of-the-art industrial and environmental showpiece that turns out 22,000 highly efficient, high-end toilets a month.
The plant produces 25 different models for residential use alone. The toilets made at the plant are more traditional and have more curves than the ones sold in Japan, which generally have fewer lines and are more contemporary.
Making toilets is a lot like making pottery, except the kiln used at the Toto plant is nearly the length of a football field and heats up to 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit. The plant produces a one-piece toilet fashioned from two molds -- the bowl and the tank.
A liquid clay mixture called slurry is pumped into toilet-shaped molds. Once they emerge from the molds, the whiteware -- unglazed toilets -- then snake around the plant through a series of steps that include drying, glazing, firing and finishing.
The drying process alone takes about 18 hours. The production line was designed so that different-sized toilets can be created side by side based on demand.
At the end of the production process, the toilets are checked for cracks using a wooden mallet in a process known as "ringing the china."
Even after 13 years with the company, Barbara Peterson says she is still fascinated by the craftsmanship.
"It's so amazing to see this done by machines and humans. We're making something [people] take for granted every day," said Peterson, 56, a resident of Lovejoy who is line leader in the plant's whiteware inspection department. "As a girl, I used to play with clay, and now I'm using my hands to make the ceramic shapes and the seats. I'm proud of the work I do and the craftsmanship. It's the simple things you're not supposed to take for granted."
Long before the rest of the world latched onto water management and conservation, Toto was making toilets that used far less water than its competitors. The island nation of Japan has limited resources and a culture that believes nothing should be wasted.
"They're a terrific steward of the Earth and its resources," said Barbara Higgens, executive director of the Plumbing Manufacturers Institute in Rolling Meadows, Ill., an industry trade group. "They're always cutting edge with respect to technology as it relates to an efficient use of water."
Now with the recession, there's more demand for energy-efficient, water-saving technology, which has helped buffer Toto in this recession.
The Toto toilets, faucets and flush valves installed at Hartsfield-Jackson airport about 18 months ago, for instance, help save 3.7 million gallons of water a month at the airport complex, Strang said. Toto executives recently worked with the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce's environmental committee to craft the water conservation section of Gov. Sonny Perdue's Water Stewardship bill. The section has been referred to as the "Toto section."
Nothing goes to waste at the Clayton plant. The plant uses about 3.5 million gallons of water a month, 3 million gallons of which is later treated and returned to the county.
Attention to detail extends to even the smallest hand tools, which are photographed, labeled and placed in cabinets that also show a photo of the employee responsible for that cabinet.
With seven different languages spoken on the plant floor, performance goals are highlighted with little yellow smiley faces or frowning faces to help the 261 factory workers understand how they're doing.
Plant forklifts run on soybean oil and the toilets are stored and shipped in L-shaped recycled cardboard boxes, which help save space in the plant and fuel in company trucks. Discarded pieces of toilet that don't pass inspection are sold to a local company that grinds up the material for use in road construction. Some of the fired china found its way back to the plant as a mosaic-style countertop in the employees' bathroom, which also has a set of the company's $600 toilet seats that work like a bidet.
Says Strang: "We have the happiest butts in Atlanta."
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