MARYSVILLE, OH – Plant yourself in the front seat of a Honda Motor Co. Ltd. vehicle – from an entry-level Civic to the sporty and luxurious ’04 Acura TL – and it’s hard to find fault with the interior.

High-quality materials, benchmark fit-and-finish, clean design and attention to functionality are the calling cards for Honda cabins, but the auto maker doesn’t do it all alone.

Its suppliers play a critical role in crafting interiors that are pleasing and inviting, and the auto maker has been using a rigorous and highly structured model it established five years ago to find qualified interior suppliers, says Larry Jutte, senior vice president-Procurement at Honda of America Mfg. Inc.

The review process consists of five steps, and all suppliers of critical materials participate. The assessment entails hundreds of checkpoints to make sure the design meets Honda’s validation requirements for production, tooling, testing and training, Jutte says. Some components undergo a 200-piece trial.

Honda’s Larry Jutte inspects fit-and-finish of Acura TL interior.

“If you don’t make the grade, then you fail that review process,” he says. “And then you have a rematch, and if you fail that you have another rematch. So we’re very relentless in ensuring that the suppliers are prepared properly.”

If a supplier is struggling, Honda does not simply walk away. “We’ll support them, assign engineers if we need to, both from R&D (research and development) and from our purchasing-engineering team, to work with them to resolve whatever concerns or issues they may be having.”

A struggling supplier may be meeting every specification, “but when you bring the whole thing together, it’s still just not quite right,” Jutte says. “Making it right means the ultimate customer is the one saying it’s right.”

Jutte describes the process while seated in the driver’s seat of the new TL, which is produced here. He runs his finger along the dashboard, along the top of the glovebox door.

“Look at this fit right here and that crucial line,” Jutte says of the point where the glovebox door closes against the dashboard. “The supplier and our team worked together and ended up redesigning the process months before the mass-production launch to make sure we could keep this tolerance on this radius here.”

The glovebox supplier ultimately installed a secondary work station with a cooling fixture to ensure Honda could maintain the tolerance. Part of the challenge – as with any glovebox – is that it’s a moving part, made of plastic.

“When you mold plastic, it has a tendency after it cools to move. To get the mold right and to get the tooling fixture exactly right is where that challenge is,” Jutte says. “We probably had four Honda people stationed at the supplier working with them hand in hand for months to perfect that process.”

As he studies the seam a bit closer, Jutte realizes it’s not quite right: With the glovebox closed, the seam along the door is not uniform. It’s slightly wider at one end of the glovebox than at the other.

Even Honda can’t guarantee perfection. Jutte admits the gap is troubling and will begin an investigation.

“I’m going to find out when this car was made,” he says. “This (gap) may not be from the supplier. This could be in-house. Is that within tolerance? I don’t know. Do I like the way it looks? Do you like the way it looks? No. It should be seamless.”

Despite the seam on that particular model, Jutte says the design aspects of the TL glovebox will be applied to other Honda and Acura vehicles.

“What we learned from that experience can apply not just to gloveboxes but to other plastic parts anywhere on the vehicle – anything that has a mating line that you’re trying to control,” he says.

Elsewhere on the TL, Jutte singles out a handful of suppliers for outstanding contributions: Magna Donnelly (body-color exterior mirrors), Panasonic (DVD-Audio surround-sound), North American Lighting (LED-based taillamps) and Stanley Electric Sales of America (headlamps). (See related story: Musicians Sing Praise for ELS Surround)

Honda considers Stanley Electric’s plant in London, OH – about an hour from Marysville – to be “global best,” based on the facility’s integrated manufacturing model.

“They have taken their molding and metalizing and final assembly and just about synchronized the entire process,” Jutte says. “If you walked into that facility five years ago and walked in today, you don’t see the huge inventory or the waste. If there’s a problem, you can immediately see it, go back and adjust it in the mold or metalizing or assembly.”

The plant is so highly regarded it ships Honda Accord headlamps and taillamps to vehicle-assembly plants in Japan. “It’s sort of a reverse situation – the global best being here in North America, being able to ship back overseas,” he says.

The arrangement may surprise many industry observers, but not Jutte. “You hear so much in the industry – everyone is running here and running there (to developing markets),” he says.

“To see a local supplier being globally competitive and shipping back to Japan, maybe that wouldn’t be the norm today. But if you’ve got the best, most efficient processes set up, typically materials here in the U.S. are competitive if not moreso than anyplace else in the world.”

Despite Stanley’s performance, it, like all Honda suppliers, must earn new business.

“Every major model year, everything is on the table,” Jutte says. “Everyone gets a fair shake at what we do. We look for the best local suppliers who we expect to be globally competitive. We believe, based on our model makeup and total volume here, there’s really no reason for someone not to be globally competitive locally.”

Honda encourages the competitive spirit by keeping two or three suppliers for each component. “We would never want to single-source something,” he says. “The spirit of innovation comes from necessity, and if you always have someone nipping at your heels, that necessity is always there and you usually bring your best ideas to the table.”

(See related story: U.S. Suppliers Can Compete Globally)

– with Katherine Zachary

tmurphy@primediabusiness.com