The new $80 million North American Production Engineering and Manufacturing Center in Georgetown, Ky. The building houses more than 600 Toyota engineers who connect the dots between design and production of vehicles in 14 North American plants. | Courtesy Toyota

By Tom Eblen | Lexington Herald-Leader

GEORGETOWN — Toyota’s new $80 million Production Engineering and Manufacturing Center is a big step toward a longtime Kentucky goal: Don’t just be a place where people make things; be a place where people also create things they make.

The automaker Monday formally opened the 235,000-square-foot facility on the campus of the largest of its 14 North American plants with a ceremony and tours of some of its state-of-the-art innovation technology.

Saying that Toyota facilities built here since 1987 have been “the most significant investment ever made in Kentucky,” Gov. Matt Bevin said this engineering center could be a game-changer.

“It’s extraordinary for Kentucky,” Bevin said. “It’s going to be transcendent.”

About 600 engineers and another 200 support staff will work in the center, which includes a new TILT Lab that will focus on innovation and problem-solving. The company calls the lab its “manufacturing nucleus.”

While good manufacturing jobs are an important piece of Kentucky’s economy, state officials also want to attract more higher-paying engineering and design jobs.

“The TILT Lab provides everything Toyota engineers need to shift conventional thinking on its axis, and take an idea from concept to prototype,” the company said in a news release. “Once tested, those advancements may be applied to the company’s plants to improve processes or solve a challenge.”

The lab includes design and testing equipment, 3D-printing, augmented reality and virtual reality facilities.

At a ceremony opening the building, Toyota announced a new partnership with the University of Kentucky College of Engineering to create an undergraduate auto production certificate program. The program will include a two-semester senior design project.

Toyota executives Monday made a $394,320 donation to Morehead State University as part of Kentucky’s Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative to create a more diverse and vibrant economy in Eastern Kentucky. The money will be used to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in 40 Eastern Kentucky elementary schools over two years.

The company also made a $50,000 contribution to the Kentucky Science Center to create a “robotics on the road to coding” program for students across the state, kindergarten through tenth grade.

The Production Engineering and Manufacturing Center was announced three years ago as part of the company’s “One Toyota” initiative that included moving the North American headquarters to Plano, Texas, and a new research and development facility in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The building was designed to LEED Platinum standards, making it at the top-level of environmentally friendly, energy-efficient standards. The building includes solar panels, rainwater collection systems, energy-efficient construction and a geothermal HVAC system.

Since coming to Georgetown in 1987 to build its initial assembly plant, Toyota says it has invested more than $7 billion in facilities there that employ 8,600 people.