3/1/2002 | 5 MINUTE READ

Honda's Alabama Odyssey

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Honda's new plant in Alabama embodies the company's vision for the future of efficient vehicle manufacturing-eschew hard tooling for flexible robots and make the engines and bodies in the same place.


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One of the things that has kept Honda from having to endure the worst of the boom-and-bust cycle that other automakers seem to be inextricably tied to is a deep fiscal conservatism that governs its investment in manufacturing. The thinking goes: better to lose some short-term sales of a hot product than to build too precipitously and end up with unused capacity. The flipside is that once a decision to build is made, the project is under the gun to become operational as soon as possible and staunch lost sales.

Honda Manufacturing of Alabama (HMA) has been under the gun its entire short life. In April, 2000, when ground was broken for the plant, the Odyssey minivan it was slated to build had half-year waiting lists because of insufficient capacity at its sole manufacturing facility, Honda of Canada Mfg. (HCM). And Honda had two SUVs in the development pipeline poised to make further demands on HCM’s already strained production capabilities. The company needed more units PDQ, so in just 18 months, the first Alabama-made Odysseys rolled off the new line.


Inside Jobs.

As Honda’s newest North American auto plant, HMA is the most concrete representation of Honda’s current manufacturing philosophy. There is a lot of continuity with past operations. Honda still embraces the idea that it is better to do some functions on site at its “assembly” plants rather than at remote locations. So, HMA’s 1.7-million ft.2 plant houses a 2,300-ton IHI press that stamps most of the outer body panels for the Odysseys made in Alabama, three of which are also shipped to HCM. And front and rear fascia are injection molded in-house. (While that was not actually part of the original plan for the facility, research showed that such large parts would be hard to ship, so they ended up as an internal operation.) In fact, far from abandoning its notion of integrated operations, HMA has broadened it: the most notable difference between it and its predecessors is that both engines and bodies are made in the same facility. But HMA is also the first Honda plant to fulfill the company’s global manufacturing standard in its weld shop.

The main thrust behind the global manufacturing standard is to increase the speed at which new models can be introduced while at the same time reducing tooling costs. To do this, Honda has jettisoned its cumbersome and complicated fixed tooling in favor of flexible robots that can be quickly reprogrammed to produce new models.

The heart of Honda’s welding operations has always been a massive machine called the general welder, or “GW” in Hondaspeak. Floor, side panel and roof component sets slide into the GW, which wheels fixed tooling bristling with weld guns into place. A brief shower of sparks later, the beast releases its hold and a car body slides out of the other end. The GW at HMA is quite different. The heavy fixed tooling has been replaced by lightweight aluminum jigs that are suspended on the end of robot arms. Clamping is kept to a minimum due to the use of electric servo welding guns designed by Honda’s tooling and equipment specialists, Honda Engineering. The guns can precisely control speed of approach and clamping force, so that parts do not have to be as securely held as with older pneumatic systems.

HMA’s weld shop is compact and centrally-located in the plant. Stamped parts from the on-site press and from suppliers flow in from the east and finished bodies flow out to the west. A mere 20 ft. separates the weld shop from the assembly line, so inventory control is simple and visual. Eyeballs not computers are used to determine if there is a problem. Wiring, cabling and cooling lines are all routed underground in specially designed pits. This makes it easier to get to the equipment for repair or tip changes, since maintenance workers don’t have to worry about tripping over lines running across the floor of the workcell. It also reduces the possibility of down time resulting from damage to the exposed lines.

A few feet from the main assembly line that is fed bodies by the weld shop is a small circular line that assembles the V-6 engines that will propel those bodies. The proximity to the main line again allows for visual inventory control. And the rotary line design facilitates quick communication between stations while still allowing for parts to come directly to the work cell.


Previously Owned Equipment.

In addition to engine assembly, HMA plans to cast and machine all of its aluminum heads and blocks on-site. Head casting began in January and block casting is slated to come on line in May. In a nod to thrift, much of the equipment in the engine area is reused from other Honda facilities, rather than purchased new. For example, the six-year old block line was brought over from a plant in England.

HMA is notable in part for what it does not contain–a lot of automation. Chuck Ernst, vice president and plant manager for HMA, says, “We don’t want to over-invest in automation because we don’t know what the market will accept and the less automation we have the more agile we will become.” Besides increased agility, Ernst cites his inexperienced workforce as another good reason to keep automation to a minimum for the time being. “We want the associates to really understand how a car goes together, not rely on a machine to do it for them,” he says. “And if you don’t have that reliance on automation, you learn.”


Primarily Trucks.

While HMA was designed to be flexible, “It is ideally suited for Honda’s light truck products,” says Ernst. For example, equipment has been sized to fit into the larger apertures found on that platform. Right now he says the plant will focus on the Odyssey, but since both the Acura MDX and the recently announced Honda Pilot are based on the minivan’s platform, ramping up for production of either of those models would be relatively easy. The more likely scenario would be for HMA to take over all Odyssey production, allowing HCM to concentrate solely on SUVs. This would eliminate the expensive practice of shipping stamped panels across the continent, and free up HCM’s 190,000-unit capacity to build all of the SUVs that Honda’s sales arm has been agitating for for many years. But don’t expect that to happen any time soon. It would be far too precipitous a move for a company that has built its success on a very conservative financial base.