The 2014 Mazda3: Who Knew There Are Machining Centers Involved?

Gary S. Vasilash

Yes, this is about a new model. An incredibly important model for Mazda, accounting for as much as a third of its global sales. But it isn’t just about the car, it is how they are manufacturing things like its engines that matter, too.

The 2014 Mazda3 is an incredibly important car for that company. Since its introduction as a model year 2004 car, the Mazda3 has had global sales—it is marketed in more than 120 countries—of more than 3.5-million units. It represents about 30% of Mazda’s worldwide sales. It accounts for more than 40% of its U.S. sales, says Dave Matthew, vehicle line manager for the car, Mazda North American Operations. Realize that the entire Mazda showroom is comparatively small, with the CX-5 and CX-9 crossovers, the subcompact Mazda2, the Mazda6 sedan, and the MX-5 sports car, in addition to the Mazda3.

And Matthew goes on to note that the C-segment, where the Mazda3 fits, will have growth on the order of 25% between 2014 and 2019. When you’re talking about a category that includes the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra, Ford Focus, Dodge Dart, Chevy Cruze, and others, it is clear that while the growth may be significant, the level of competition is demanding. To put it mildly.

While it might be an exaggeration to say that the Mazda3 is a make-it-or-break-it car, it would probably be difficult to overstate its importance.

But here’s something interesting. As Mazda personnel, including Matthew, introduce the 2014, they talk about a variety of factors.

•    Engines: 2.0-liter offering 155 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque, and achieving up to 41 mpg highway. A 2.5-liter, 184-hp, 185-lb-ft four that is offered with i-ELOOP, which is a system consisting of a 25-kJ capacitor, variable-voltage alternator (12 to 25 V), and a DC-to-DC converter. The system collects energy via a regenerative braking system; it is stored in the capacitor then used to power vehicle electrical components such as the headlights, HVAC, and audio. Because the EPA test cycle doesn’t include much in the way of electrical load, the effect of i-ELOOP is negligible on the sticker rating, but Mazda engineers reckon that it provides a 5% fuel efficiency improvement in real-world conditions.
•    Telematics: They’ve developed a new system, Mazda Connect, which was specifically developed not only to provide a variety of infotainment options, but to do so in a way that minimizes cognitive, visual, and manual distraction. This is realized through such things as positioning a 7-in. color touchscreen central and high on the instrument panel and closer to the driver so that the viewing angle is such that there is a reduced focal length adjustment required to see the screen, which results in shorter glance times away from the road. They calculated that given the distance between an eye and the center of the display (750 mm) and the consequent visual angle, the text font needed to be 5.3-mm tall, and while there is an ISO standard calling for a line spacing of 0.7x text height, they determined that a 1.2x text height was more efficient. They also engineered a knob that’s located on the center console below the shifter that is designed to provide control without a need to take eyes off the road (e.g., there’s tactile feedback), as is necessary when using a touchscreen (although there is touchscreen functionality provided).
•    Safety sensors: There is an array of sensors that facilitate functions ranging from adaptive cruise control to autonomous braking, from rear cross traffic alert to lane departure warning. Called “i-ACTIVSENSE,” it includes a front-looking camera and 76 GHz radar and rear-facing near-infrared laser and 24 GHz radar. 
•    Better structure: The 2014 Mazda3 has 30% more torsional rigidity than the previous-generation car, thanks in large part to an increase in the use of high- and ultra-high strength steels, up to 60% from 50% in the last model.

They talk about that and more.

But there is one subject that Dave Coleman, Vehicle Evaluation Manager, R&D, Mazda North American Operations, talks about at some length, a subject that generally gets short-shrift at most: Manufacturing.

“Anybody who grew up after the Industrial Revolution is absolutely convinced that economies of scale mean more than anything else. The more of something you make, the cheaper it gets. If you look back at the fundamentals of why this is true, it is less true now than it was even a decade ago,” Coleman proclaims, and then goes on to explain how Mazda has reengineered not only its cars (the initiative known as “SKYACTIV”), but the way it designs and builds things like engines.

Coleman: “Economies of scale are built around the idea that you have to have a big factory and special-purpose equipment that can build just that one engine. And a whole lot of them. The more you build, the more you amortize the cost of the expensive machinery.”

So the conventional approach is to develop engines that are as common as possible in order to take advantage of what the equipment can do. As he puts it, “It’s not because that’s a good idea for the engine.” This drive toward commonality led to the development of things like a 1.8-liter and 2.5-liter engine that have the same mass: “The 2.5 is as light as it can be,” Coleman says, “but the smaller one is heavier than it needs to be.” They had a 1.8-liter and 2.0-liter engine that have the same stroke. Why? Because they could share the same crankshaft. Amortizing the cost of the equipment.

The new approach is to use a scalable architecture that allows the engines to perform better, not meet the requirements of the machine tools. For example, consider the 1.5- 2.0- and 2.5-liter SKYACTIV-G (gasoline) engines. Each engine has a different bore and stroke. They are, respectively, 71 and 82 mm for the 1.5; 83.5 and 91.2 mm for the 2.0; and 89 and 100 mm for the 2.5. Yet consider the combustion ratio of the three, predicated on scaling the architecture: 0.87, 0.92 and 0.89, all within a tight bandwidth. It is about the performance of the engine, not the performance of the transfer line.

And this is possible—and economical—through the use of flexible manufactur-ing equipment, Coleman explains.

Coleman says that previously in the Mazda engine plant in Hiroshima, in order to accommodate the production of engines—various four-cylinder, a V6, and an I4 diesel—there were 45 machining processes required. Now they’re using machining centers. Commercial products that have been modified by Mazda engineers to meet the company’s specific requirements. (Historical fact: the company that is now Mazda was established in 1920. It produced products including machine tools until 1931, at which time it started building vehicles.) Rather than dedicated equipment that can do one thing, these machines are performing a variety of functions on various faces of the workpiece. The 45 machining stations are reduced to four. The six hours that it once took to machine a block is now done in 1.3 hours. A significant part of the time savings, Coleman points out, is achieved by maximizing the time that metal is being cut and minimizing the time that the blocks are being transferred and fixtured.

Additionally, there is a considerable amount of manual assembly of the engines such that the various types of engines produced at the plant can be handled on a single line.

According to Autodata (motorintelligence.com), in 2012 Mazda had just 1.9% of the U.S. market. A sliver. Consequently, to be competitive, it has to provide products that are not only solid performers, but it must do so in an efficient manner that makes them affordable as well as desirable.

Clearly, the 2014 Mazda3 is meeting those metrics.