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Earthquake reveals fractures in Japan's auto supply chains

Toyota extends production cutback as Hitachi plant struggles to resume operations

Hitachi Astemo's Fukushima plant: the facility has struggled to resume operations following a Feb. 13 earthquake, resulting in widespread disruptions for Japan's auto industry. (Photo by Niki Mizuguchi)

TOKYO -- On Friday morning, less than a week after a 7.3-magnitude quake rocked northeastern Japan, a stream of cars from across the nation began flooding into a Hitachi suspension factory in Fukushima Prefecture that had been damaged in the upheaval.

The procession represented a who's who of Japan's auto industry, from a car emblazoned with a Suzuki Motor logo to technicians in Honda Motor jumpsuits.

"I think there's someone here from almost every Japanese automaker," said an employee at the factory, run by Hitachi Astemo, a unit of the Japanese multinational. He said about 100 people had come to help restart the facility, which had been closed since Monday due damage sustained from the earthquake.

Though some of Hitachi Astemo's lines are set to return online on Saturday, the chaos in the aftermath of the latest temblor has raised renewed concerns on diversification and risk management in Japan's auto industry.

Hitachi Astemo is the world's top producer of hydraulic suspensions and is a major supplier to many Japanese automakers. But the closure of the factory meant the company had to completely halt shipments of certain suspension components, setting off a chain reaction that caused clients to cut back on production as well.

Toyota halted 14, or half its production lines, in Japan for four days due to the disruption to its parts supply. It said Friday that it will extend the freeze by up to two more days until Monday at 12 of those lines. Overall, the country's largest automaker expects a more-than-30,000-vehicle decline in output across a range of models, from the RAV4 sport utility vehicle to its luxury Lexus line.

Not all at Hitachi Astemo have been happy with the recovery efforts despite what appears to be a national effort. "Companies like Toyota [are] in charge, and it's up to the automakers when we can resume operations," an employee said.

"The only thing we can do is clean up," said another. "Nobody is updating us, so I don't really know what's going on."

The facility suffered damage to its electrical wiring and machinery from the Feb. 13 quake. Though the former was fixed relatively smoothly, the company had struggled to get any of its painting machines back online.

Despite the partial reopening on Saturday, a full recovery remains a distant goal. "There are still wires coming down from the ceiling, and I don't think we can return to work anytime soon," said one worker who visited the plant on Friday. The worker had not been told when to return for work.

Hitachi Astemo was launched last month through a merger of Hitachi Automotive Systems and three Honda affiliates, including Showa. The move, which broke from Japan's traditional corporate alliances, was intended to give the resulting entity a stronger foothold amid the rise of connected, autonomous, shared and electric vehicles.

The affected Fukushima plant belonged to what used to be Hitachi Automotive, which consolidated all of its suspension production there in fiscal 2019 with fewer vehicles being built in Japan. Though an ex-Showa plant in Saitama Prefecture also makes suspensions, that facility mostly produces products for Honda and could not take over from the Fukushima plant so soon after the merger.

Automakers "don't have multiple suppliers for the same part in the same model," one company said. This means many relied solely on Hitachi Astemo's Fukushima plant for a range of different vehicles, which led to widespread disruptions after the quake.

When chipmaker Renesas Electronics suffered major damage at a factory from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, automakers across Japan were forced to halt their production lines. Toyota suspended all output in the country, and did not return to full capacity for about a month.

Renesas later made changes to prevent this from happening again, such as keeping clients updated about the number of products it has in stock. Though the same factory temporarily halted operations after the latest quake, it did not appear to have a major effect on auto production.

But recent developments have highlighted the risks that come from streamlining production to cut costs.

"I don't know when I can go back to work," one employee at Hitachi Astemo's Fukushima plant said. 

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