March 27, 2014 12:00 am JST

Push-button production: Case 1 Honda

AZUSA KAWAKAMI, Nikkei staff writer

The Yorii plant manufactures 1,050 Fit cars a day.

TOKYO -- Two robots hover near a pair of wheels, adjusting their positions in response to constant feedback from their sensors. "When the car body is sent here, the front wheels will be attached automatically," explains a Honda Motor official.

     The body of a Fit subcompact, already painted and welded, arrives and the tires are installed in seconds. No one is around to make sure the tires are attached properly. No one has to be. "Even the quality-control process is automated," the official says.

     Welcome to Honda Motor's plant in Yorii, Saitama Prefecture. It is the company's first new domestic factory dedicated to turning out finished cars in 23 years, and operations are in full swing. Ostensibly, its main function is to manufacture the Fit, also known as the Jazz in some parts of the world. But even more importantly, it serves as a testing ground for production innovations the carmaker will introduce at its plants across the globe.

     Automation plays a big role at the facility, but people are a crucial ingredient. Honda is trying to find the perfect balance of automation and the human touch to achieve maximum efficiency and quality. That combination, the company believes, will give it an edge.  

Inhumanly fast   

The Yorii plant is not Honda's first to use robots to install wheels -- that honor goes to its Fit production base in Suzuka, Mie Prefecture, which has twice as many such machines. It is, however, the first where the entire wheel-installation process is fully automated. The robots enable a big jump in efficiency. They can attach a wheel in as fast as 3.5 seconds, one-sixth the time it takes at Honda's factory in Sayama, Saitama, where humans handle the bulk of the work.

     Most of the innovation at the Yorii plant focuses on the basic steps, such as welding and assembly work. Nine of the assembly processes are automated, compared with just one in Sayama.

     The automaker's determination to retain the human element is symbolized in its decision to have people install instrument panels alongside robots. For this task, four special machines, said to be the only ones in Japan being used for manufacturing, use laser sensors to pick up and adjust to the movements of experienced engineers.

     By having people and robots work together on a process that requires great precision, Honda is seeking to minimize mistakes. The company says this setup has also lowered costs by reducing spending on safety and other equipment.

     The Yorii plant, which rolls out 1,050 Fits a day in addition to SUVs and sedans, is a study in efficiency. Although Honda does not disclose the per-unit production cost, the cost of welding and press work there is 30% lower than at the Sayama factory.

Clearing the path    

All the automation equipment made the initial investment bigger than usual, but Honda was willing to shoulder the higher costs because it regards Yorii as more than just another Japanese production base. The innovative techniques honed there will be introduced overseas, especially in Mexico and other emerging markets. Honda President Takanobu Ito underscored the significance of the Yorii plant by saying it will lead the way for all the company's factories.

     Because Honda wants to apply technology and processes developed at the new plant abroad, standardization is a big theme there. The automaker has reduced the number of frame parts so that they can be used for different cars. It has roboticized the mold-making process and also introduced a mold which can be used for different models, instead of having to make a new metal mold for each. These innovations are proving useful for turning out cars other than the Fit.

     Honda has a lot riding on the Yorii plant. After announcing in 2006 its plans to build the factory, the automaker was slammed by a soaring yen and the March 2011 earthquake. In the meantime, Japan's car market has shrunk and the shift to overseas production has accelerated. All of this has manufacturers rethinking the roles of their domestic factories.

     Given the many sound reasons for pulling up the stakes at home, why keep production in Japan? Honda hopes it has found an answer in Yorii.