It's easy to see the outward signs of how Honda of America Mfg. (HAM) has re-invented itself over the past few years. Flexible weld robots have replaced hard tooling. Assembly lines have been lengthened and processes re-shuffled for maximum efficiency. Behind the scenes, say HAM executives, even more has been going on. "We saw the need to come full-circle and focus on the fundamentals," states Tom Shoupe, vice president and plant manager at HAM's Marysville [Ohio] Auto Plant (MAP). That's because Shoupe and his management team had a sense things had gotten too complex during the launch of the latest Accord in 2002, and so set out to simplify their processes. Surprisingly, one area that needed work was basic communication.
Clearing the Underbrush. Honda has been practicing the genchi-genbutsu (go to the actual spot, see the actual situation) approach to problem-solving for so long that it was taken for granted. But with creeping complexity comes fuzzy communication, so HAM re-emphasized getting buy-in and creating a clear understanding of the situation. "We said: 'Let's define problems and approaches and then show everybody, so that when I say something, everyone knows exactly what I mean,'" says Shoupe. While this seems like "Manufacturing 101," it pays dividends even in a seasoned production environment. Clearer definitions of specific quality problems helped MAP improve its "Quality in the Process" program, a primary tool for catching defects before they end up as warranty items. Says Shoupe, "We cleared a lot of underbrush so we could see things in a way we hadn't before."Honda of America Mfg. has reconfigured its plants to conform to Honda's global New Manufacturing System while quietly re-focusing on manufacturing fundamentals.
Never Assume. The same "no assumptions" principle is applied to new model development. During the launch of the Element, HAM touted its use of the "One Floor" concept, where manufacturing and R&D engineers meet daily to develop design compromises and keep information flowing. One Floor is now the norm, but Shoupe still worries about miscommunication. "We are working hard to make sure designers clearly under-stand our capability to produce," he explains. "If they design something we can't build, that creates a 'loss' that must be recovered so it doesn't end up in the garage of a customer."
To help avoid that, HAM involves day-to-day operations managers and line workers earlier in the development process. In the past, a plant's new model team and its business management team operated largely independently. One was, by definition, focused on the future, and the other on keeping product moving smoothly down the line and out the door. Now the two interact more fluidly. John Mayberry, Body Assembly Group senior manager at MAP, has been on both sides of the divide. He says the argument for more business team leader involvement came down to this: "If you really want to do something about the production issue we're struggling with today, you need to be on board early for the next model." That's happening. Shoupe, who recently returned from a trial build in Japan for the Acura RDX SUV that enters production at MAP next year, says there were far more daily production team members on hand than ever before. "The bar has been raised," he observes.
Becoming Less Independent. Honda also is trying to better plant-to-plant communications in order to leverage its knowledge base. "In the past we tended to be a little too independent," says John Adams, senior vice president and general manager at HAM. "We now emphasize that we should try to understand what people are doing within Honda first, then determine how we can build upon that." This lead to the establishment of an electronic network that links all plants and serves as a real-time clearinghouse for new ideas, and a series of "Tech Fest" gatherings where new approaches are shared on a more formal basis. Both Adams and Shoupe acknowledge that driving these efforts are a combination of more sophisticated and demanding customers, and stronger competing products. Neither believes the initiatives are optional. "We're getting better as fast as we can," says Shoupe. "We have to."
The 2000-2005 Civic must be the low-water mark for Honda's designers. Clean but conservative, it missed the target in every iteration. The sporty Si model, which followed the basic stylistic theme found on the "long roof" Civic hatchbacks of the 1980s, failed to ignite much interest, while the four-door and Coupe almost put buyers to sleep. Street cred was lost, and Honda appeared to be losing ground. Then something happened.
In short order the Acura TSX (Honda's Accord in both Japan and Europe), North American Accord, and Acura TL hit the market. Each was crisp, clean, and much less conservative than expected. Even the Acura RL, which had stayed far too long with sheetmetal more attuned to the Disco '80s than the New Millennium, was given a shape that strays dangerously close to exciting. And, the next-generation Civic–based on the promise of the concept car–has far more authenticity and style than its predecessor. What happened inside Honda to bring about this stylistic change?
"Nothing in particular," answers Dave Marek, Chief Designer/Auto Design, Honda R&D Americas. "It's not like there's a new design language, or a mandate from the top saying we have to do this or that. Companies go through periods where the people in power are risk takers, and other periods where they aren't. Vehicles reflect that, no matter who is making them." Which suggests the powers-that-be at Honda during the current Civic's gestation weren't particularly daring.
Daring is a word that comes up often in conversation with Marek. As in, "We're not daring enough." Ask him about the latest Acura TL, for example, and you'll hear about how it was influenced by the Acura TSX. "We wanted to have some continuity between the TL and TSX," he says, "so we played off the TSX's design." Which is quickly followed by: "Still, I don't think it's as daring as it should be." The 2006 Civic?: "The new Civic is not a large leap for us, but it's interesting that it's being perceived as this giant leap. Granted, the last one wasn't sporty, which may be why people see the new one as such a big leap." Wasn't sporty? Spoken like a true master of understatement.
According to Marek, package and proportion are the starting points for every Honda vehicle. "It makes sense to start there and build things around a logical, well-developed package," he says, "because people come first." Building on this logical base, surface development tends toward clean and simple lines, larger glass for better visibility, and tight panel gaps. "We spend many, many hours refining a design, and have–at times–gone to the point where it became a bit too conservative because of this," Marek admits. Hondas will always be clean and simple, he says, "but infusing character into a clean, simple design isn't always easy." Or easy to adapt to other vehicles.
Creating an Acura from this base requires some adjustments. For example, the TSX and European Accord share all but their bumpers, grille and trim, but the TL shares nothing with the North American Accord on which it's supposedly based. "The TL is always a generation behind the Accord," says Marek, "which is always more conservative than what's on the market now. That makes its design more of a challenge." According to Marek, Acura models have a tighter cabin, a more-aggressive wheel-to-tire relationship, and lines are simpler than those found on other vehicles in the sport/luxury segment. "We need to feel like the leaders in that segment, but not look like them," he says, "because our buyers are different. Acuras aren't made for the guy who autocrosses–or would like you to think he does–because an Acura owner is more refined."
Refinement extends to the design process as well. "We work differently with our engineers," says Marek. "Our engineers do most of the development They have expertise in how a vehicle goes together, and a more creative approach than a strict manufacturing engineer." Which translates to an ability to act as a go-between when Marek and his designers hold out for their ideal design. "They know how to negotiate, which gets us closer to where we want to be," he says.
Honda currently is in the midst of a big internal design push that will see more differentiation between Honda and Acura models, and a greater embrace of the tuner crowd. "We still have a relationship with Pininfarina and seek outside input every so often," says Marek, "but having a small staff [Honda's West Coast design office has fewer than 50 designers] responsible for a lot of different things at any one time gives our vehicles an inherent continuity that extends beyond a set of key phrases." Marek is pleased when his competitors do their best work–he's a fan of Chrysler's 300 and Pontiac's G6, and feels Hyundai hit the target with the new Sonata–because it forces his team to raise its game.
Among Marek's current objectives are taking the "modern tech but rugged" design of the Ridgeline SUT and apply it to other vehicles in the Honda lineup; giving the Civic a more emotional and fun-to-drive appeal; and to put the rest of the Honda lineup under the "family, innovative, fun" umbrella. Acura? "They'll be more sheer, more chiseled with a tightened cab, have a more aggressive wheel-to-body ratio, and a tougher wheel design," he says. The next 24 months in Honda's design life–a time that will encompass the introductions of the next-generation Civic, Accord, CRV, Pilot, TSX, TL RD-X, and MD-X–promise to be anything but conservative.
Honda's alternative powertrain strategy, says Ben Knight, vice president, Honda R&D Americas, is predicated on three basic issues: air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and energy sustainability. So this is leading the company to do everything from improving its internal combustion engines to developing at-home refueling stations for natural gas and hydrogen. While this might seem like the company is reaching here, there and elsewhere, Knight indicates that there is a determined approach. Here is some of what the company is undertaking.
Hybrids. Although it was first to the American commercial market with a hybrid vehicle, the Insight, Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid has received criticism because it rarely runs solely on electric power. Knight argues that IMA is actually the most elegant approach to delivering superior fuel economy and satisfactory driving feel. What's more, the low-mass system (i.e., a thin electric motor and small battery pack) is packaged so that it can be combined with any of the company's current transmission designs without major reengineering, which means it can be comparatively readily deployed. Downsize the internal combustion engine or utilize variable valve timing and cylinder deactivation, and you can have a fuel-efficient (Civic Hybrid) or powerful (Accord Hybrid) vehicle.
Natural gas vehicles. Honda has been producing natural gas-powered vehicles for nearly a decade. The Civic GX NGV is built on the line at the East Liberty Plant in Ohio along with conventionally powered Civics. The issue is more sociological than technological. According to Knight, "You have to start early to prepare the market for alternative fuels because you're dealing with new infrastructure, different economic models, and distinct customer behaviors." Honda recently announced a home re-fueling center in association with FuelMaker Corp. (www.fuelmaker.com) to facilitate the use of natural gas. Knight calls NGV users "apprentices to the hydrogen economy," as he sees NGVs as being "bridging technology," with hydrogen power being where they'll graduate to. Still, he believes that NGVs will coexist with hydrogen powered vehicles.
Fuel cells. Honda surprised the industry when it introduced its third-generation, proprietary "FC Stack" in 2003. The earlier generations use industry-standard fluorine membranes and carbon separators. But the third generation uses rust-proof stamped steel separators and an aromatic electrolytic membrane. The result is a smaller and lighter stack, but one with double the power density of its predecessors. It provided the best indication that mass-produced fuel cells could make economic sense. Additionally, extending the operating temperature to -20ºC is a key breakthrough for real-world operations. Knight says Honda is ready for the next step: leasing FC Stack-powered fuel cell vehicles to individual customers. Honda and Plug Power Inc. (www.plugpower.com) have developed a home energy station that converts natural gas into hydrogen for vehicles. This should facilitate personal use of the technology (as distinct from, say, the use in commercial fleets like UPS or FedEx trucks). "With fuel cells we're talking about a revolution," Knight says, and then adds, "We're seeding that revolution now."
The genesis of the strategic alliance between Honda and General Electric to produce a new jet engine for light business jets reaches back almost 20 years to when Honda first began researching jet engine designs. In 1986, Honda began its investigations into the production of light aircraft engines (and light aircraft); the HFX-01 turbofan engine–its first design–entered the research and design phase in 1991. It was ground tested in 1993, and more than 70 hours of high-altitude testing over California followed from 1995 through mid-1996. This design was superceded by the HFX20, which was created to reduce the HFX-01s fuel consumption and noise levels while also improving its serviceability. It lead directly to the HF118 the company will produce in concert with GE.
The HF118 was developed using proprietary Honda CFD software to optimize airflow, and uses electronic control technology developed from its automotive applications. Honda claims this is the first "ultra-compact" Full Authority Digital Electronic Control (FADEC) system for a jet engine in the 1,000 to 3,500-lb thrust class, and that it provides superior operational reliability without the need for separate variable control mechanisms. The proprietary combustion chamber design is said to keep emission levels below anticipated standards for compact jets.
Driving the design of the engine–and the experimental HondaJet business jet–is the expectation that the market for inexpensive four-to-eight passengers business jets will grow for use in both personal and business travel. Both Honda and GE say they expect the market to absorb 200 or more of these business jets annually as owner-operators, "fractional" owners, and air taxi operations increase.
Years after teaching the world through its VTEC variable valve timing system that more revs = more power, Honda introduces an engine for the European Accord with a combustion process better known for torque and a truncated redline, the CTDi diesel. The 2.2-liter four cylinder has a common-rail design that produces 140 hp @ 4,000 rpm, and 251 lb-ft of torque @ 2,000 rpm. This compares to the 190 hp @ 6,800 rpm and 164 lb-ft @ 4,500 rpm output of the standard 2.4-liter gasoline engine. Though down on top speed (130 mph vs. 141 mph) and 0-62 mph acceleration (9.4 sec. vs. 7.8 sec.), the diesel's 17 gallons of fuel take it 314 miles farther on the highway and produces 114 g/mile fewer CO2 emissions than its gasoline-engined equivalent.
On the Road
The first hint this is not a typical Honda motor is a slight diesel "rattle" at idle and low rpms. The second hint is the prodigious torque output and low engine redline. The third is the inability to make the fuel gauge move in any significant way without logging more than 200 miles. With the low-end torque peak at 2,000 rpm, and a slick five-speed manual gearbox, the European Accord CDTi is the perfect vehicle for stoplight grands prix. Yet, unlike diesels from manufacturers with more experience than Honda in the arcane science of compression ignition, this engine eliminates many of the downsides of Dr. Diesel's design. There is little smoke, almost no diesel "clatter" above idle, and a less-abrupt transition when the key is switched to "off." It's a diesel that Americans could live with, and possibly love