10/1/2000 | 15 MINUTE READ

Honda's Hat Trick

Facebook Share Icon LinkedIn Share Icon Twitter Share Icon Share by EMail icon Print Icon

There is probably no other company that would use a new product development center to create a new car (one that is produced in 12 countries and that is a best-seller in the single biggest market, the U.S.) and build it with a new manufacturing system. But Honda has never really been like other auto companies.


Facebook Share Icon LinkedIn Share Icon Twitter Share Icon Share by EMail icon Print Icon

The Civic first rolled on American roads in 1973. As Dan Bonawitz, vice president, Corporate Planning and Logistics,American Honda, notes, "The early '70s were a time in America when big, gas-guzzling V8s from Detroit ruled the road." It was also a time when oil prices skyrocketed, which, in effect, put many of those gas-guzzlers on the side of the road. Comparatively little cars like the Civic were well positioned. Detroit had to play catch-up with mixed results (Vega; Pinto).

2001 Civic EX coupe
The 2001 Civic EX coupe and EX sedan. Note that the overall height of the coupe is lower than the sedan (it's 40 mm lower) and the A-pillar is at a sharper rake, providing a sportier stance. Common parts are essentially the front end, instrument panel, and tires . . . yet both are built on the same line at the Honda East Liberty, Ohio, assembly plant. (The coupe, which was fully developed in America yet is exported, is built exclusively at East Liberty.)
2001 Civic EX coupe

It could be argued that the first time out of the box Honda was lucky with the Civic. Had gas continued to be cheap, had emissions not been regulated, then 1975's Civic CVCC might not have become the vehicle that kick-started sales for the company (it sold more than 100,000 units); the Civic would not have become, in Bonawitz's description, "the 'second pillar' of strength in Honda's American lineup," the Accord being the primary support.

One of the aspects of the U.S. auto industry that the Oil Embargo made visible was that there was not exactly a quick-response or rapid-redeployment capability in the industry, which not only helped boost the sales of things like the Civic, but which led to some dubious products.

One of the things that is heard to this day from some executives of U.S.-headquartered OEMs is that they can't make money on small cars. Consequently, there is a tendency for those companies to make what they can make money on . . . which nowadays are things like full-sized pickups and large sport utility vehicles. Many plants have been shifted over from car production to light truck production. Many of these vehicles are powered by V8s. Maybe they don't guzzle as much gas as they once did, but . . .

Although unwilling to divulge what the dollar figure is, Bonawitz says that Honda will make money on the 2001 Civic. They expect to sell 330,000 units in its first year (the Civic has been the best-selling small car in America for five years running); the vast majority of those vehicles will be produced at Honda of America Manufacturing's East Liberty, Ohio, assembly plant (capacity: 230,000 per year), with supplemental volumes coming from, mainly, Honda of Canada Manufacturing's plant in Alliston, Ontario (Civic capacity: 170,000 per year), and the balance from the Honda plant in Suzuka, Japan.

But what is more interesting than the fact that they have developed a new car (and as will be explained, with a new development system) is that they have positioned their manufacturing capabilities so that they are capable of building vehicles other than the Civics in the Civic plants. Maybe they were lucky with the Civic early on. But they've replaced a need for luck with what is called the "New Manufacturing System." When the market changes—and what is more fickle than the market?—they are ready.

A New Product Mindset. 
In a word, the system is about flexibility. While that word can be construed by different people in different ways, consider what this means for Honda and its East Liberty Plant (ELP): Should the market demand Accords rather than Civics, then ELP can be quickly—and economically—switched over to produce Accords. In fact, Honda's worldwide lineup consists of five platforms, with the light truck platform of the Odyssey at the top and minicars that are not available in the U.S. market at the opposite end. ELP—thanks to the utilization of more flexible equipment in the weld shop and a reconfiguration of assembly layout—is capable of producing four of the five.

More likely, however, they'd be building, says Tom Shoupe, ELP plant manager, "like-sized products in the plant. But we're able to respond quickly to demand."

Shoupe makes a telling comment about ELP, which has been building Civics since it opened in 1989: "We no longer think of this as the 'Civic plant,' but a plant that is in the business of introducing new models as well as manufacturing cars." The mindset is one based on change. He explains that one of the things that he emphasizes to the 2,700 people at ELP, who will be producing some 950 vehicles per day at full production, is that they must be prepared to take on new tasks, to build new products. "Before, a new model launch was a big event, then it went away," Shoupe says. That is, everyone prepared for the moment, it occurred, then it became business-as-usual until the next time. And then everyone had to get all ramped up again. But Shoupe says that the ELP associates are developing the mindset that considers transitions a way of work.

At this point there must be some objections that have come to mind.

The Usual Objections.
For example, flexibility. No one—at least no one that isn't in the business of providing products that are produced on monument-like hard automation, equipment that has been long paid for—would argue against flexibility. . .but they would probably point out that flexibility is much more expensive. Obviously, it might be thought, because Honda can make money on small cars, it has the means by which it can invest the additional monies required to make ELP a flexible plant.

Although Honda managers won't talk specific dollars, they do acknowledge that compared with setting up the plant for the launch of the previous generation Civic, the 1996, the investment for '01 is 40% . . . less. They are nothing if not thrifty at Honda.

Then there might be a question about speed. The Civic went into production at ELP on August 15, 2000. The previous day they were building '00 models. Essentially, it was a matter of the last '00 being followed by the first '01. They expect to be at full production within six weeks at ELP.

The '01 program is considered to be a "simultaneous" launch at the three main production sites (the Civic is built at 12 plants around the world, but Japan, the U.S., and Canada are where the bulk of the volume is produced). What do they mean by simultaneous? Suzuka launched on July 3. Alliston followed ELP by less than two weeks: on August 28. The schedule calls for all Civic plants to be building the new models within 6 months. During the launch of the last generation Civic, there was a six-month gap between launching the vehicles in just Japan and Canada (with the U.S. in the approximate middle).

Robots for the Right Reason. 
Koki Hirashima, president and CEO of Honda of America Manufacturing, says of the New Manufacturing System, "New weld equipment is at the heart of this new system—where programmable robots helped us adopt a strategy of re-teaching, rather than re-tooling."

Ryland Eades of the ELP weld department points out that two of the four weld zones in the plant (A Zone: floor comp; B Zone: White body) have been completely reconfigured, using robots not only to handle parts (he points out that there is better repeatability when a mechanical arm lifts and fits pieces of sheet metal into fixtures for hours on end), but actually to maneuver parts for processing, such as in the case where there is a stationary sealant applicator and a robot that moves the parts to be sealed round the end of the sealing gun.

And, of course, there are robots used for welding. Eades notes that the general welder (GW) jig, where the floor, sides, and roof are brought together had been a complicated mechanism, specifically dedicated to a particular model. "The new GW jig is much less complex," Eades says, "utilizing 20 programmable electric robots that perform multiple tasks to make the approximately 130 required welds. The result is not only reduced equipment downtime, but increased flexibility. In addition, costs associated with future model changes are lower since there are fewer tooling modifications. The new GW can simply be re-programmed for new models, with minimal investment required for new fixtures, which are much less complex than on the old GW."

As is often the case when it comes to a production technology development, Honda Engineering came up with a new tool to improve the welding operations. The in-house engineering staff devised electric servo weld guns that can be programmed to provide the appropriate pressure for the materials being welded. This is Flexible Gun Unit II—the second generation of this device. But it is worth noting that the robots being used to produce Civics are actually off-the-shelf models (specified to meet Honda needs, of course), with Fanuc robots dominating the A Zone and Motoman robots in the B Zone.

Increased cabin size
By redesigning the front suspension and under hood layout, Honda engineers were able to reduce the length of the nose by 65 mm, which facilitated increasing both the cabin size and the trunk (part of the front end reduction was used to expand the rear length) without increasing the length of the vehicle (actually, it is 15 mm less). If you look closely, you can also see that there is a flat floor, made possible by repositioning exhaust components and developing a new suspension setup.

Reorganized Assembly.
Another aspect is what is called the "Global Standard Layout." Essentially, this system is based on organizing the stations on the assembly line by function. They have established five functional process zones: Wiring & Tubing; Interior; Chassis; Exterior; Complex. What this means is that rather than having tasks related to these areas intermixed throughout the line—as they had been doing up until the '01 model was launched—there are now distinct areas where associated activities are performed. To assure that the tasks have been performed as required, at the end of each zone there is what is called a "Quality Guarantee Area." This is an inspection area. Keith Beachy of ELP Assembly explains that what this means is a more organized approach to performing quality checks, and that the previous layout had an emphasis on checks near the end of the line. By establishing the checks at the ends of the zones, any quality problems that can arise can more readily be traced back to their root cause.

The Global Standard Layout is not just something that is setup at ELP. There is process standardization at all Civic plants, thereby facilitating the possibility of any of the plants switching production capacity as required by customer demands. Whenever there are operations that are unique to a particular plant, then these non-standard processes are off line, in a subassembly area (e.g., there will be a natural gas-powered version of the Civic, the GX, which will be produced exclusively at ELP; the tank build-up is being performed off the main line).

At the Start.
But before all of this—before the New Manufacturing System, the flexible body shop, the Global Standard Layout—there was another development within the worldwide Honda organization that the Civic development team was able to take advantage of. Chris A. Poland, associate chief engineer, Americas New Model, Honda of America Manufacturing—the man who is the engineering project leader for the '01 Civic—explains that in 1997, in Tochigi, Japan, the Honda New Model Center (H-NMC) was established. Because the '01 Civic was in development at that time, the engineers who were working on the project all came together at H-NMC.

Historically, the approach had been that new product development would occur at new model centers at the Suzuka Plant or the Sayama Plant. A given model would launch first in Japan (at the "mother plant") and then would be moved to other facilities. Although one could argue that this is advantageous in that all of the "bugs" could be worked out at the first plant and not transferred to the other plant(s), Poland points out, "Transferring production from one plant to another often requires modifications in manufacturing processes and tooling to suit the different production methods." In other words, not all parts of the world use the same type of equipment. This approach changed with the launch of the 1998 Accord, and it changed even more so with the H-NMC and the Civic.

Tochigi is also the location of a Honda R&D center, a place where vehicles are designed. H-NMC is a place where people work together to develop the tooling, processes, equipment, and methods to build those designs. Globally, Honda is organized into five regions: Japan; North America; South America; Asia/Oceania; Europe/Middle East/Africa. Representatives from all regions got together at H-NMC and worked together on the Civic, each providing insights into how work is done at their facilities. Poland observes, "Associates from all of the Civic plants submitted thousands of tooling and process design changes for Civic. These requests were put into a database by H-NMC, which was utilized by Honda R&D to make modifications."

Robots replace complex, dedicated fixtures for the general welders in the body shop, thereby making the East Liberty Plant capable of being rapidly reconfigured for manufacturing other models. This permits the plant to be capable of responding to customer demand.

Implementing Info Tech.
Another thing that was used in the development of the Civic was a new global development system, Digital Manufacturing Circle (DMC). Essentially, DMC is based on CATIA CAx product and process development software. Poland observes, "R&D uses DMC for product design simulation in development to reduce the number of prototypes required for testing. And in manufacturing, the system also employs design simulation to develop and evaluate new tooling and process designs, rather than producing actual prototype tooling. The ability to execute design changes with fewer prototype models and parts reduces both the time and cost of new vehicle development."

Poland admits, "Reaching a 'five-region' consensus was challenging." He adds, "But it was worth it. Working together to resolve production issues early in the development process ultimately saved time, cut costs and most of all, improved the quality of the '01 Civic."

Body tolerances are one obvious metric of quality. Honda has always been good at this. With the '01 Civic they're really setting some serious standards. For example, the door gaps for the 2000 model year are 5.0 mm. They're just 3.5 mm for the 2001 Civic. The bumper/headlight/fender gap is 5.0 mm for '00; it's just 1.5 mm for '01. The front fender/bumper gap and rear body/bumper gap for the '00 are 3.0 mm; they're both just 0.5 mm for the '01.

The Cars Themselves.
So what about the car? This is the seventh generation.This is a new car. All new chassis and suspension. All new body. The goal was to make the car bigger (inside not outside in keeping with the "Man Maximum, Machine Minimum" philosophy) and safer, while maintaining value (read: competitive pricing). Now the car is in the compact category, up from the subcompact ranking of its predecessor. And they've boosted engine power, with the engine displacement increased 6%; there is now a 1.7-liter aluminum engine instead of a 1.6-liter power plant. And it should be noted that the vehicles have a ULEV rating in all 50 states.

This time there are just two models for the U.S. market: sedan and coupe. Similar to what Honda did with the present generation Accord, the two models are relatively distinct.

For example, from a physical point of view, the coupe is 40 mm lower in height compared with the sedan (1,400 mm/1,440 mm); the hip point is 20 mm lower. The rear ends of the vehicles are clearly different, with the coupe having its own taillight design that is located lower over its own bumper and a cut line on the trunk that is much edgier than that on the sedan. The coupe includes numerous chassis enhancements (e.g., high-strength steel mid-floor cross member and floor gussets attached with oversized, high-tension bots; one-piece center pillar stiffeners) to help provide different ride and handling characteristics.

Overall, the primary common parts on the sedan and coupe are the instrument panel and front end (although the grilles on both are different).

To make it comparatively light, rigid, and safer, there is an extensive use of high-tensile strength steel for the body of the '01 Civic; 50% of the body structure is made with the material. Laser tailored welded blanks are used on the door inners for additional strength without unnecessary weight penalties. (On-line laser welding is used to stitch weld the door hem area.) Also aiding in safety is a parallel front subframe that supports and surrounds the engine; described as a "shark's jaw" by Honda engineers, this is a hydroformed component. To increase the interior volume of the Civic (the sedan goes to 104.3 cubic feet from 101.7 cubic feet) modifications were made up front, under the hood and under the floor

The steering gear box in the sixth generation Civic was located close to the differential gear, which necessitated a long front end. But the steering gear box is moved higher on the '01 so that the front wheels could be moved backward. Which means that the nose of the vehicle could be reduced by 65 mm. (This new packaging also necessitated the development of a new MacPherson strut suspension.)

An interesting—and practical—development helps out those people who must sit in the back seat of the Civic. The floor is flat. No hump. This was accomplished by moving the exhaust pipe pre-silencer over to the rear right side of the vehicle. Honda engineers also devised a new, compact double-wishbone suspension system that doesn't use a trailing arm. A consequence of this new suspension is that the trunk floor is also flat. And because the nose was made shorter, the rear length was increased by 40 mm, thereby making the trunk 1 cubic foot larger. The overall length of the Civic is 15 mm shorter than the previous model (the length is 4,435 mm).

The 2001 Civic represents not only a new car, but a new product development system and a new manufacturing system. Often, companies have been admonished not to take on too many tasks at the same time (think, for example, of the Saturn experience, with the new piled on top of new, a level of complexity that, arguably, the company never recovered from inasmuch as the company never really achieved the kind of product development and market penetration that was potentially there). It is fairly evident, however, that if any automotive company can pull off a complex program with aplomb, it is Honda.


  • Designing the 2019 Ram 1500

    Ram Truck chief exterior designer Joe Dehner talks about how they’ve developed the all-new pickup. “We’ve been building trucks for over 100 years,” he says. “Best I could come up with is that this is our 15th-generation truck.”  

  • Introducing the Mercedes Production System

    Hardly a week—let alone a month—goes by without a new model being presented by the DaimlerChrysler colossus; the frequency is such that sometimes they barely register a flicker on the interest scale.

  • 2015 Jeep Wrangler Willys Wheeler

    The thing about the Wrangler Willys Wheeler: It is a toy for a grown-up boy.