7/1/2002 | 3 MINUTE READ


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Nissan's Smyrna, Tennessee, plant has been a lynchpin in the automaker's return from a near-death experience. It has reduced costs, improved quality and is turning out popular products. Its next challenge is to launch the all-new Maxima and teach the new plant in Canton, Mississippi, its productive ways.


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Nissan's Smyrna plant has long been a crown jewel of the often-troubled company. It has been named the most productive assembly plant in North America for seven years running by the Harbour Report (through the report release in June, 2001), turning out vehicles in a mere 17.37 hours a piece. It has the flexibility to build both body-on-frame trucks and SUVs and unibody cars. And with the addition of the new highly competitive Altima last year to a product mix that includes Frontier pickups and Xterra SUVs, Smyrna may now be the single most important plant in Nissan's global network.

At 5.2 million ft2, Smyrna is a massive and comprehensive facility. At current running rates it churns out about 410,000 vehicles annually, and that will rise to 510,000–515,000 units with the introduction of the new Maxima in January 2003. In addition to the usual welding, painting and assembly operations, it blanks and stamps almost all of the exterior and interior body panels for its vehicles on the 13 presses located on-site, using 35–40 steel coils a day. (There are only five blanks that it purchases from the outside, four of which are aluminum and the fifth is laser-tailored.) It makes all of its own fuel tanks, stamping and welding the steel truck tanks and blow molding those for the Altima. It even mounts all of its tires to wheels in the plant.

To maintain its leadership in plant efficiency and meet the strictures of the just-ended "Nissan Revival Plan" turnaround strategy, Smyrna has instituted cost reduction and quality improvement efforts that are now paying off. Warranty costs have dropped by 50%, and parts per million defects on supplied parts have been reduced to 240 from well over 1000 in just three years. 



On the plant floor at Smyrna, Nissan has tweaked operations through the judicious use of automation to improve efficiency and throughput. A prime example of this is the compact Xterra body line. It was originally designed to process 17 jobs per hour, but customer demand outstripped capacity driving Smyrna's engineers to shoehorn in sealer robots and automated conveyors that brought the jobs per hour rate up to 25. Cycle time dropped from 164 seconds to 115 seconds, necessary manpower decreased from 22 to 16, and the line's up time went from 75% to 85%. Nissan gained the capacity for an additional 30,600 Xterras a year, relieving their demand problem. And at an annual cost savings reckoned at $840,000 the project investment of $2 million will have a quick payback.

Smyrna is currently preparing for the introduction of the new Maxima with the first line trials to have taken place in June. The plant is installing a new body line that will handle the side panels, closures and re-spot for the new sedan. Though the Altima body line is flexible enough to handle the Maxima it lacks the capacity to cover the additional 80,000 units, thus the new construction.

Meantime, Smyrna is providing a real-world classroom for workers at the nascent Canton, Mississippi, plant. Canton employees—230 of them—have trained at Smyrna in preparation for the launch of their first vehicle in 2003. And given that Canton will have Nissan's latest production technology, Smyrna may be teaching its new colleagues how to win its productivity crown. "Canton has an edge," says Dan Gaudette, senior vice president of U.S. Manufacturing for Nissan North America, Inc., who has responsibility for both Smyrna and Canton. "If they implement well they should be more productive than Smyrna." However, he is quick to add that that would just mean a 1-2 finish for Nissan.