December 6, 2013
Honda Motor Co.'s newest assembly plant was seven years in the making, twice delayed and may be the last greenfield car factory in Japan for a long time.
But the Yorii factory, nestled in rolling green foothills just north of Tokyo as part of Honda's Saitama assembly complex, provides a look at the next-generation manufacturing technologies Honda aims to transfer to its overseas factories.
The factory, which opened in July with annual capacity to make 250,000 vehicles, specializes in small cars based on the Fit platform. It bustles with hyperefficient machinery that shaves cost and time from Honda's already lean manufacturing process.
Yorii makes the new-generation Fit hatchback and will soon produce a Fit-based compact crossover that will go on sale next month in Japan and eventually in America.
Overall, the advances slash 30% off assembly costs, compared with the older Sayama plant nearby, plant manager Takehiro Kono said during the factory's Nov. 7 dedication. Some examples of the savings:
- Stamping efficiency improved 40% by introducing a high-speed press and a high-speed die-swapping machine.
- Energy consumption in the paint shop dropped 40%.
- Production engineers cut the number of processes on the assembly line by 9%, thereby shaving the time required for final assembly by 40 minutes, Honda said. The company declined to give the time required before or after the changes.
Automation was taken to the next level.
Take tire mounting. At Yorii, only two robots are needed. At Sayama, it is four.
In contrast, additional automation was introduced to a number of processes, including glass attachment, interior panel installation, seat mounting and door fitting.
The general welding station at the typical Honda plant, where body panels are joined, has 16 robots welding 94 points.
But Yorii's streamlined welding station has 10 robots welding 126 points - doubling the operation's efficiency.
Yorii is also the first Honda plant to get an indoor test course, screening every car coming off the line, rain or shine.
Honda unveiled plans to build a cutting-edge factory at Yorii in 2006. The plant was supposed to be churning out cars by 2010. But the global financial crisis upended that plan.
Construction started in 2007. Then the project was delayed twice as the economy fell apart and the rising yen challenged the wisdom of building a factory in high-cost Japan.
Honda President Takanobu Ito resurrected the project in 2010.
Yorii's lines may boast some of the latest production methods. But that the factory exists at all is a bit of an anachronism.
Japan's domestic auto market is shrinking, the Japanese work force is rapidly aging, the export industry is as susceptible as ever to fluctuating exchange rates and a new philosophy, build where you sell, is the global mantra.
No other Japanese carmaker plans to expand its domestic capacity with a new factory.
Still, Ito sees value in investing in a new plant, viewing it as a kind of petri dish for pioneering new manufacturing technologies.
Honda's overseas factories, especially in emerging markets, won't get these capital-intensive technologies soon. But Honda wants them eventually to migrate across its global base.
"For Honda to progress," Ito said, "we must advance the technology of manufacturing, not just the technology of our products."
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