Plant Magic: Honda's At It Again Another manufacturing revolution from the masters of the quick changeover

EAST LIBERTY, OH - By now, it's generally accepted that Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s got a pretty good handle on the manufacturing thing.

We began to acquire a close-up understanding when formerly faraway Honda started assembling vehicles in the U.S. 18 years ago. Since then, the industry (and the media) has all but canonized Honda for its exceptional quality levels in general - and adroitness in pulling off rapid model changes in particular.

Now we've got to yank out Roget's for yet a new group of superlatives to explicate Honda's latest antics. With the launch of the all-new '01 Civic, Honda has adopted a new manufacturing philosophy that it dubs New Manufacturing System (NMS).

Honda says NMS drastically will reduce re-tooling costs and increase assembly plant speed, efficiency and quality. These improvements, remember, come on top of Honda's already high standards.

Manufacturing officials say this first North American use of NMS issued a whopping 40% reduction in the manufacturing investment required here to tool-up for the new Civic. The company says NMS also represents "a new standard for flexibility," and also will deliver new, higher levels of quality and build tolerances.

The heart of NMS is a "flexible" weld shop that uses brand-new, state-of-the-art programmable welding robots. Ryland Eades of East Liberty's weld department says the new robots mean there are fewer model-exclusive jigs required, which makes the weld shop dramatically more adaptable to different body styles - and quick model changeovers. Honda officials believe an NMS-equipped plant can easily adapt to build vehicles on four of Honda's five main platforms. Rather than changing rigs to weld new models or body variants, the robots simply can be reprogrammed, which Honda says cuts costs and changeover time and provides for greater transfer of assembly processes between plants.

The new robots themselves are electric, meaning the complete elimination of hydraulic fluid and a substantial cut in cooling-water waste, too, says Mr. Eades. Backing up Honda's not-inconsiderable reputation in areas apart from vehicle manufacture, the company designed the heads for the robots, the rest being handled by Yaskawa's Motoman unit. Mr Eades says that despite the new electric welding robots - and more of them - the plant's electricity draw has been reduced by 20%.

Along with the total revamping of the welding paradigm, Honda's NMS also dictates a new layout for the assembly area: All five main assembly processes that are the same for any model now are grouped to streamline assembly and more logically arrange production sequences. Model-specific routines are done in off-line, sub-assembly areas. Honda says that in addition to enhancing flexibility, the new assembly routine provides for quality assurance "deeper" into the assembly process, which promises a higher direct-ship rate because quality problems will be ferreted out earlier in assembly.

Honda's got a huge customer-oriented goal with NMS, though: to achieve an almost simultaneous launch for the '01 Civic, which is built in 12 different countries and sold in 140. Honda manufacturing officials say NMS now will allow Honda's major Civic manufacturing plants - including Japan, the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom - to ramp up to full production within a brief two-month window. For the launch of the previous-generation Civic, Honda needed six months for all major plants to initiate production of the new model.

Honda officials say the company is focused on simultaneous launches in order to reduce the time required to offer a new model to all markets. They claim that with the immediate availability of information through media like the Internet, today's customers are more aware - and therefore less likely to accept - that some markets offer new models before others.

For Japanese automakers, it has not been atypical for new models for non-domestic markets to lag by a year or more their launch in Japan. Honda says that the information age has made customers more reluctant to buy an outgoing model when they know its replacement already is on sale in other markets. Other Japanese automakers - notably Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. - are working toward the same goal.

The NMS process is derived from Honda's Japan-based New Model Center, established in 1997, which incorporates the research and development/manufacturing processes early in a model's development cycle. Honda also is using a new system called Digital Manufacturing Circle (DMC), to connect R&D, manufacturing and suppliers by computer network; DMC speeds the development process, says Honda, by allowing all parties to share three-dimensional drawings.