Flexible manufacturing processes and close cooperation between its production and R&D operations have enabled Honda Motor Co. Ltd. to become the first automaker in North America to build minivans and sport/utility vehicles (SUVs) together on the same line, says Frank Paluch, chief engineer, Honda R&D Americas Inc.

The Acura MDX, Honda's first foray into the full-size luxury SUV market, will be produced on the same line as the top selling Odyssey minivan at Honda of Canada Mfg. (HCM) using what the automaker has dubbed its "New Manufacturing System." This system, Mr. Paluch says, will increase speed by reducing the time needed to bring a new model to mass production or to add an existing model to a different plant. It also will increase efficiency by cutting much of the investment normally needed for retooling.

At the heart of the system is new general weld (GW) equipment that uses a strategy of re-teaching, rather than re-tooling, with one jig as opposed to two or three. Fewer jigs, Mr. Paluch says, means the factory will require less maturation for a new model. In essence, the GW enables the line to change from one vehicle to the other with the flip of a switch.

Adding the MDX ('MD' stands for multi-dimensional) to the same line as the Odyssey was particularly challenging, Mr. Paluch says, because of the SUV's 4-wheel-drive system called VTM-4, developed by BorgWarner Inc. Changes had to be made to the Odyssey platform, a first for Honda with its unibody structure and ladder frame construction. Whereas the Odyssey incorporates a "magic seat" that folds into the floor, the MDX platform had to incorporate the VTM-4 unit along with the magic seat on top of it.

Mr. Paluch says the front carry points on the platform were kept the same for the MDX and Odyssey, but because the wheelbases of the two vehicles (the Odyssey is more than 300 mm longer than the MDX), the rear carry points had to be different. To remedy the situation, conveyors were retrofitted with two rear pickup points. Honda then created a special design for the lift points on the overhead conveyor that carries the vehicles to accommodate both the Odyssey and MDX.

This low cost solution, Mr. Paluch says, protected the integrity of the flexible manufacturing system without compromising the base design.

In addition to those changes, Honda created a new "double-isolated" design to reduce noise, vibration and harshness for the MDX, and increased torsional rigidity by installing a beefier D-pillar section.