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Champion car-builders

Champion car-builders

Smyrna, TN--While the United Auto Workers dueled General Motors this past summer, a fresh report surfaced showing that U.S. firms still lag Japanese car companies when it comes to factory productivity in North America.

The new research, released by Harbour and Associates (Troy, MI), found that Nissan's Smyrna, TN, plant took the fewest hours to assemble a vehicle--just 16.55 for the Altima and Sentra compact models. The plant also builds the Frontier small pickup--and led in that category as well, with 18.27 hours required to assemble the average vehicle. In comparison, the closest U.S. competitor in the compact car category was Ford's Kansas City plant, which takes 22.53 hours per car on the Contour and Mystique. In small trucks, Ford Twin Cities was the closest U.S. plant to Nissan, at 21.80 hours for the Ranger.

In company averages for hours needed to build a vehicle, Nissan also led the pack at 17.07 hours, followed by Toyota (21.31 hours), Honda (22.31 hours), Ford (22.85 hours), GM (30.32 hours), and Chrysler (32.15 hours).

The Harbour organization believes that hours per vehicle is the best standard for labor productivity because it captures additional performance factors, including worker overtime.

What's Nissan's secret? In an interview with Design News, Manufacturing VP Dan Gaudette cited three major reasons: a high degree of automation, a focus on design simplicity, and a motivated work force who play an active role in planning how a vehicle should be built.

Nissan maintains an army of some 600 robots at Smyrna on chores ranging from painting and welding to materials handling and parts installation. For example, five robots handle virtually the entire rear assembly on the Altima. Extensive use of scanners and bar code readers also ensures that parts and modules get assigned to the right vehicles. At the other extreme of automation, Smyrna relies heavily on a system of people movers--aka "Line-side limos"--that reduce worker fatigue, cut down on waiting time, and speed production.

Gaudette says that Nissan strongly encourages design for assembly among its supplier base. "A major goal is to achieve simplicity in design. We build three models at Smyrna, but they can share many of the same parts." He notes, for example, that the models once required some 30 different wiring harnesses. Now it's down to 3 or 4. Interior color options also have been reduced, and suppliers do more design and assembly work in instrument panels.

The Smyrna facility is more complex than most plants, with stamping, body lines, paint shop, and trim and chassis operations. Yet Nissan wants workers to learn a variety of tasks. "We do a lot of rotation in our shops," says Gaudette, "both for ergonomic reasons and to break up the day. It's very common for people to do four different jobs in the same day."

The result of all this is that Nissan Smyrna manages to build a car every 30 seconds. What's more, precious little time and space is given to "fix-up" chores. "We believe in building them right the first time," says Gaudette.

Workers are already involved in helping management plan the build sequence for a new sport utility vehicle soon to be assembled at Smyrna. Meanwhile, Nissan engineers at design studios in Detroit, California, and Japan are doing computer modeling to preview the assembly process and insure proper fit and finish for the new vehicle before actual production.

Says Gaudette: "We have an excellent record, but manufacturing productivity comes down to striving for continuous improvement. We take a fresh look at what we do every year."

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