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BUFFALO — Toyota’s rural plant in Buffalo started as a very small operation in 1996 with 200 workers.

“I don’t think most people could have imagined how much we would continue to grow over those 25 years,” said Srini Matam, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing West Virginia (TMMWV), in a telephone interview with The Herald-Dispatch on Friday.

The company hosted an event at the plant on Friday to celebrate a quarter century of producing engines and transmissions in Putnam County.

“As of today, we have 2,000 team members and have invested $1.8 to $2 billion here at the plant,” he said.

Matam said nearly 20 million powertrains have been built at the plant over the past quarter century and there have been 11 expansions.

“The plant is the only Toyota plant in North America that makes both engines and transmissions,” said Matam in a news release issued after Friday’s event. “It’s the only Toyota plant in North America to produce hybrid transaxles for the Sienna and Highlander and the only Toyota plant worldwide that produces under one roof this stable of engines that include the ZR 1.8-liter 4-cylinder, GR V-G 3.5-liter and TNGA 2.5-liter 4 cylinder.”

Matam said the common denominator for the plant’s success is its team members.

“We can’t do anything without them and the ability of our people to adjust and learn new advanced manufacturing principles is incredible,” he said. “From our folks on the line to the engineers and across the board, it’s very humbling to see so many individuals come together to make the best possible engines, transmissions and transaxles in the world. They are the core piece to our success.”

Matam also talked about the future of the plant.

“The future of this plant is unlimited,” he said. “We are well positioned for the next 25 years as innovation and advanced manufacturing lead the way.”

In June, after more than two years of preparation, the Buffalo plant produced Toyota’s first hybrid transaxle in North America.

Matam said just last week the plant introduced an additional 10,000 hybrid transmissions to bring the total production up to 20,000.

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“Also market demand for the RAV4 and Camry engines are up, which has led to us adding a third shift and plans to hire 100 additional team members,” he said.

Matam said the plant will also invest an additional $210 million in upgrades of existing equipment in the next couple of years.

“We continue to build more efficient engines and transmissions and we are deeply engaged in hybrid technologies and robotics,” he said.

Coinciding with the 25-year anniversary celebration, The Toyota USA Foundation awarded a $189,000 grant to West Virginia University Institute of Technology. The grant supports a new after-school computer science program for middle schools in four West Virginia counties, including Putnam, Kanawha, Fayette and Raleigh, officials said.

“This is an investment in our future,” Carolyn Long, WVU Tech campus president, said in the release. “The program will help young people see the opportunities ahead and give them the tools to pursue interests in robotics, cybersecurity, game development and more. We hope that this will be a model program that will expand throughout the state.”

Shamaya Morris, a production group leader at TMMWV, said it is a smart investment for the future.

“The first thing I tell people is that Toyota West Virginia is an advanced manufacturing facility,” she said in the release. “We program and set up robots to work around people and alleviate the burden of heavy lifting and repetitive motions. We make it safe for the team members on the floor. We use the brawn behind the robot but need the team member’s brain and cognitive abilities.”

In a prepared statement, Gov. Jim Justice commented on Toyota’s staying power and overall investment in the Mountain State.

“I could never thank the incredible folks at Toyota Motor Manufacturing West Virginia enough for all the goodness they’ve brought to the town of Buffalo and our entire state over the past 25 years,” he said. “Their commitment to our communities and our people has been off-the-charts. Toyota has been a wonderful partner to our great state and is a shining example of how a global company can truly thrive in West Virginia.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., congratulated Toyota on its achievement.

“For 25 years, Toyota has been a strong partner for the Mountain State, creating thousands of good-paying jobs and investing $1.8 billion in the state,” Manchin said in a statement issued Friday. “When I served as Governor, I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Toyoda and company officials to reaffirm the commitment between West Virginia and Toyota. Not only has the company invested at the Buffalo Plant, they have invested in West Virginians’ lives across the state, including a recent investment at West Virginia University Institute of Technology for a computer science program for students in four counties. Thank you to Toyota for their continued investment and the hardworking West Virginians exceeding expectations at the plant. I look forward to West Virginia’s partnership with Toyota for decades to come.”

Fred Pace is the business reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. Follow him at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD.

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