Your Luxury Car Was Built Where?

"If technology is a fork, then culture is how you use it."

Here’s a question: Can a given vehicle be manufactured anywhere and still have the characteristics that is associated with that vehicle’s brand? To be sure, a machine or a robot or a weld station or a measuring system doesn’t care what it is processing. So it comes down to culture. Which might seem to be a bit of an exaggeration, but it is really quite simple. As a friend told me many years ago, “If technology is a fork, then culture is how you use it.” The equipment represents the fork. How the people who work with the equipment operate represent the culture.

Which brings me to the Nissan manufacturing complex in Aquascalientes, Mexico. Nissan operates two operations, Aquascalientes 1 and 2. The former has 1,827,000-m2 under roof and an annual capacity of cars including the Versa and Sentra of 375,000. Aquascalientes 2, which opened last fall, measures 1,942,491 m2 and has an initial capacity of 175,000 cars per year. It produces Sentras. Both plants have a full suite of manufacturing operations, from stamping and molding to painting and final assembly.

The Sentra and the Versa are good cars. But they are Nissan models. They are not Infinitis. Nor are they Mercedes. Which brings us to still another plant to be built in Aquascalientes. This one, also for compact vehicles, will have an annual capacity of 300,000 vehicles when in full production (estimated to be in 2021). The investment being made in this plant is approximately $1.4-billion (or 17.7-billion Mexican pesos). This plant is a 50:50 joint venture between the Renault-Nissan Alliance and Daimler AG. Start of production of a premium compact vehicle for Infiniti is slated for 2017. The following year, its Mercedes’ turn.

The day before this new plant was announced, production began on four-cylinder engines in a Nissan plant in Decherd, Tennessee, for use in the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and in the Infiniti Q50.

Mercedes has a plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which certainly hadn’t been considered to be a site of premium vehicle production, yet they are doing a fine job of turning out M-Classes and now C-Classes. Nissan started production at its now-massive (5.9-million-ft2) complex in Smyrna, Tennessee back in 1983. Again, who would have thought that Smyrna is a place at which some 550,000 vehicles are built each year?

Which brings me around to the initial question about whether there is any correlation between authenticity and geography.

Back in 2003, the Lexus RX 330 went into production at the Toyota Motor Corp. Cambridge South plant in Ontario, Canada. This past June, the plant received the J.D. Power Platinum Plant Quality Award. The award is given to the plant that produces vehicles with the fewest defects or malfunctions. And the plant can be located anywhere in the world. There is one Platinum Plant Quality Award. Which means that the Canadian plant building the RX is the best, period. Clearly, this is a case of technology and culture working in complete synchronized harmony.

BMW has a plant in South Carolina where it produces its X models for the world. Earlier this year, the Munich-based company announced it is investing an additional $1-billion in the plant that will have the effect of doubling output, to 450,000 units per year, by the end of 2016. What’s more, it is investing $1-billion in a new plant in San Luis Potosi, which is scheduled to come on line in 2019. Audi is building a $1.3-billion plant in San José Chiapa, Mexico, that is scheduled to come on line in mid-2016 and to initially build the Audi Q5. Honda builds Acuras in Ohio. And at the Nissan Smyrna plant they are building the Infiniti QX60.

This doesn’t mean that any company can start producing luxury vehicles anywhere assuming that it has deep enough pockets. It gets back to the cultural issue. This can only be done if there is a sufficient amount of training, training and more training. Only if there is a commitment to excellence from every individual who is in the plant, whether that person is in charge of the total operation or in charge of total productive maintenance or simply in charge of getting her or his job done on the line day in, day out. And this commitment can’t waver. It must be reinforced. Regularly. Zealously. If that happens, then no one should be surprised at where their car or SUV comes from. The technology doesn’t care.