Quietly Making Lots of Transmissions

Article From: 9/1/2001 Automotive Design & Production, , Senior Associate Editor

You'd think that a plant in Ohio that produces almost a million transmissions per year would be well known. But have you heard of Honda Transmission Mfg. of America? We didn't think so. Here's an introduction.

Transmission valve bodies that are cast, machined and assembled at HTM.

At Christmas time, 1996, while most Honda workers in Ohio were engaged in the rigors of the holiday season, an unlucky few were shepherding 90 truckloads of equipment from Honda’s Anna Engine Plant to what was then Bellemar Parts Industries (Russells Point, OH). Their challenge was to transfer Anna’s transmission manufacturing capabilities in less than two weeks and provide an uninterrupted flow of parts to their customers. They succeeded and marked their transformation by becoming Honda Transmission Mfg. of America (HTM). Within two years, HTM surpassed the output of its mother plant in Japan, making it the largest automatic transmission production center for Honda in the world.

HTM’s history is long and circuitous. 
It began life as Bellemar (a name derived from the two closest cities to the plant, Bellefontaine and Marysville) in 1982 with a plant that was located beside the then-brand new Marysville Auto Plant, Honda’s first auto manufacturing facility. (In fact, it was Honda’s first North American auto parts supplier.) Over its 14-year history, Bellemar produced and eventually spun off myriad different parts such as seats, tire assemblies, exhaust systems, brake and fuel lines, and catalytic converters, before being bought by Honda and beginning its career as a transmission specialist.

The HTM plant is a telling example 
of Honda’s skill at packing a lot of production capacity into a small footprint. The 300,000-ft2 facility casts and machines aluminum transmission and torque converter cases and valve bodies, and assembles complete transmissions all under one roof. It produces 4-speed transmissions for the Civic, Accord, and Odyssey models, as well as a more sophisticated 5-speed for the Acura TL, CL and MDX. HTM is on track to produce 930,000 transmissions this year, including those for Honda of Alabama Mfg. which will begin producing Odyssey minivans this fall.

Coaxing more production out of existing equipment, much of which is over 10 years old, is a daily exercise for the people at HTM. Each department has its own approach, but all mix judicious investment in automation (or de-automation) to remove identified bottlenecks with clever engineering that does more with less.

Casting More
Increased productivity in HTM’s casting department begins with the design of the dies themselves. Honda utilizes an intricate die cooling system with more cooling lines than is typical for such dies, and the coolant in those lines is kept at a constant 50 by a chiller system. The colder dies mean faster cycle times. A supplier that makes the same part but uses a tower that only brings the coolant to 80 has a cycle time of 78 seconds. HTM’s is 60 seconds.

Similarly, HTM has in effect cut cycle times in half in the casting of the transmission’s servo body by employing a two-cavity die that makes two parts in one shot. Assuring the proper flow of molten metal is more difficult to achieve with a two-cavity die, but HTM proudly points out that their scrap rate is even lower than their counterpart plant in Japan, though that facility only uses a one-cavity die. Part of the reason for HTM’s casting success is the constant tinkering of its engineers trying to eke out more efficiency. Steve Pape, an engineering coordinator in the Casting Department, says, “On almost every run we try something different. For example, today we tried a new type of shot tip to push the aluminum through. It has a ceramic-coated steel tip that we hope will give us better sealing and lower porosity than the beryllium-copper tip we now use.”

Machining More
In the machining department, HTM has increased capacity the old fashioned way: by adding a new line. But it has also reduced cycle time by replacing humans with part loading robots, and increased flexibility by ousting old hydraulic robots in favor of new simple and more agile electric robots. However, one of the biggest boons to the department’s productivity is the result of the greater accuracy with which parts it machines are cast and forged. A good example of this is the one-step reaming of the valve body and torque converter case. In the past, the parts had to be drilled before reaming, but the castings are accurate enough now that the drilling operation has been eliminated, freeing up machining capacity for other things (like the complex 4-wheel-drive transmission and torque converter cases that require far more operations than their 2-wheel-drive counterparts).

Assembling More
The assembly department is reducing down time and increasing throughput by pursuing what seems to be a growing trend: de-automation.

That is, they are replacing complex, fully-automated assembly machines with much simpler ones that are human-guided. A case in point is the nutrunner machine for the transmission case. The old machine was completely automatic, but would experience downtime whenever a bolt was misaligned. The new machine is moved into place by a line worker who can quickly detect and fix any misalignments. And reducing downtime is particularly important right now since one of HTM’s two assembly lines is running flat out at 2,000 units per day and the other will ramp up by 20% from 1,600 to 2,000 units per day by the end of 2001.

Next Step: Transmission Center
According to Dan Holbrook, vice president/general manager of HTM, the company’s main goal right now is to become the automatic transmission center for North America, as laid out in Honda’s global strategy. This means it must go beyond manufacturing and bolster its capabilities in product engineering and market quality analysis. The idea is to have a staff of engineers who can quickly diagnose problems that show up in the market and use their knowledge to expedite countermeasures and influence future transmission designs. HTM already has some experience in this area. Its engineers meet on a weekly basis with Honda R&D members and Honda of America Mfg.’s parts purchasing staff to discuss problems and fixes. But this fall these activities will be accelerated when HTM opens a new technical center that is currently under con-struction beside its plant.

The technical center will have a workshop for the installation and removal of transmissions, an analysis room where they can be disassembled and examined, and a component testing room. Eventually, the center will install a dynamometer for endurance testing.

Though the operations that will be performed in the technical center are pretty straightforward, the building itself will be anything but. HTM is installing such eco-friendly technologies as increased insulation, geothermal heating, skylights, and advanced digital temperature control systems. David Schmitt, the engineer who heads up the technical center project, says that the goal of the building is to cut energy needs in half when compared to the traditional edifice they could be building. HTM is taking on the added complexity of eco-construction partly to demonstrate its dedication to Honda’s green factory program, but also to add its own unique twist to its expanding role. And taking the initiative to create what may be the most ecologically sound facility in Honda’s global network, may be just what is expected from a transmission center.