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The Accord's Awesome Launch

The people at Honda of America Mfg. have performed some impressive feats of changing over from one model to another since they started production in 1982. But for the '98 Accord launch, the word "impressive" has to give way to "awesome."

The Honda of America Mfg., Inc. (HAM) auto plant in Marysville, Ohio, has been in production since November, 1982. This plant, in which 5,800 people work, producing some 420,000 vehicles per year (1,750/day: they generally work a five-day week), is unique in a number of ways.

First off, realize that it is the primary source for the Accords sold in North America, the vehicle that is now always near the top in overall car sales in the U.S. When the 1998 model Accords go on sale-the sedan on September 23 and the coupe on November 4-the Honda Marysville plant will be the sole source of Accords for North America, and it will also export vehicles to Asian (but non-Japanese) markets. The `98 Accord—designed, engineered, and which is now starting to be produced by HAM—is a different car than the one that Honda is producing in Japan. It should be noted that Marysville has been the sole source of Accord coupes—that's "sole" as in they aren't produced in Japan or anywhere else. And while on the subject of exports, it is worth noting that the plant is the U.S. leader in export production: 320,000 units since 1988. This capability is explained, in part, by another first that the Ohio plant boasts: the first to produce left-hand drive vehicles and right-hand vehicles (for export, naturally) on the same line. Yes, they are nothing if not capable of dealing with variants at the Marysville plant: from 1986 to 1990, they were building two entirely different platforms-the Civic and the Accord-on the same line.

There have been five full model changes and 15 all-new models produced at the plant since 1982. (In addition to the Accord sedans and coupes that it continues to build, it built the Accord hatchback from 1984 to 1987, the Accord wagon from 1990 to 1997, and the aforementioned Civic sedan from '86 to '90.)

When there was a full model change for the 1986 model Accord, the change from the `85 models to the `86 models was performed without shutting down the plant and laying off people.

These folks are good. Really good. In 1997 J.D. Power & Associates named Honda Marysville the "Best Auto Plant in the World."

Some people might think that with all that's been accomplished there, they can maintain the status quo and still be ahead of many other plants. But according to Ron Shriver, Marysville plant manager, what's happening right now is "the most significant full-model change since HAM began production."

First of all, they are, in effect, working without a net. In Honda parlance, the `98 Accord is a "mother-line-less launch." This means, simply, that there is no history on this one in Japan. The mass production of these vehicles will happen for the first and only time in Marysville. And should the demand be very, very good, then it will be up to the folks at HAM to figure out how to meet it because there are no resources in Japan that can help them out on this one.

The cars are more complex than the vehicles they've been producing. This means new processes and new equipment. It didn't mean adding staff or space.

In the past, the Accord coupe has been, essentially, an Accord sedan minus two doors. But, Dan Bonawitz, American Honda corporate planning, explains, not only was there an effort made to have "a unique character for each market"-as in the American Accord being a "wide-body version" and the Japanese Accord a "narrow-body version"-but there was the recognition that there needed to be a better differentiation between the Accord coupe and sedan.

The coupe, Shriver says, is 1.8 in. shorter (i.e., wheelbase) than the sedan. "This means different chassis and white body components and different welding processes," he notes.

Further: the two types of vehicles share just one exterior part-the headlamp assembly. They share just three interior components: the steering wheel, the center console, and the instrument panel.

In addition to which: there are not only various trim levels for the vehicles, but three different engines (two L4s and one V6), as well.

So if the fact that they are making two vastly different vehicles in the plant wasn't challenge enough, they wanted to get up and running at a rate that can be considered to be a world-class-if not world-leading-launch time:

From 0 vehicles to 1,750-full production-in just 20 days.

Shriver points out that the `97 Accords are selling well, so they didn't want to lose production, and the new vehicles have been tested to be extremely popular (and all indications are that they will be priced well), so they want to get as many vehicles in dealers' lots as fast as they can-presto change-o! As the accompanying ramp-up chart shows, there really isn't much of a launch "curve." Shriver admits that it is more like a cliff. The '97s went out of production and the builds of the '98s began moving up, up, up. As the graph showing the comparison between the ramp-up of the '94 Accord-which was another full model change-and the '98 Accord indicates, not only is the ramp-up rate steeper, but the number of units being made this time is greater.

So how did they set about to accomplish this feat? With plenty of up-front work. Shriver says that the manufacturing development for the `98 Accord began in January, 1993. That's even before the `94 Accord went into mass production. There was a close working relationship established between Honda R&D in Japan and the people at HAM. There was serious concentration on making improvements in productivity, ergonomics and efficiency. That is, they wanted to be able to make more units safely and in a way that was manageable by people so that the quality of the vehicles could be better assured. (Tim Downing, engineering project leader for the `98 Accord, notes that one of the reasons why they like to work five days rather than six or seven, as is often the case where there are best-selling vehicles being produced, is because they want to assure that the employees have a respite from their car-building "There are quality and morale issues," he says.)

The relationship between Honda R&D in Japan and HAM was strengthened, Shriver notes, during the development of the `96 Civic. Shriver was the project leader for that program.

Additionally, there was a close working relationship between HAM and the Honda R&D facilities in both Ohio and California. Both experience and relationships developed during the work to bring on line the Accord coupe, Accord wagon, Civic coupe, and the Acura CL (which is built exclusively at the HAM East Liberty, Ohio, plant) helped here.

Work on what it would take to physically make the cars on-line started early, too: the `98 build started on line in March, 1997. "No other Honda plant has produced so many units on line so early," Shriver claims. Early production models were being built up on a daily basis-as many as 200 units per day-prior to the mass production launch in August. Shriver points out that these early builds helped the Honda associates get a better working knowledge of what it takes to build a '98 Accord, and it also helped assure that the equipment would operate as needed.

One of the bigger changes with regard to processing that's occurred at the Marysville plant is that there is more off-line sub-assembling going on. For example, in the case of the instrument panels, instead of doing much of the work of installing components to the IPs on the main line, the IPs are being built up and installed as fairly finished modules. Not only does this free-up valuable space on the line, but it is an ergonomic advantage as well, as people can do their jobs at table level and not have to crouch within a partially built-up auto interior. Similarly, the frame door sash that's being used is larger than the one in the `97 Accord, but sub-assembly work reduces the number of parts by a third.

Parts consolidation is another area of emphasis. The center console is now a single piece rather than an assembly, which not only reduces the assembly work, but also contributes to improved fit-and-finish. Even the door inners are an area of consolidation. The `98 Accord features a laser-tailored blank door inner. One of the benefits of this component is that the door brackets can be attached directly to it; previously it was necessary to attach additional components to provide the required stiffness for the brackets. While it may be said that Honda is coming somewhat late to the laser tailored blank arena, it will be up in front come January, 1998, when it brings on line its own laser system to make the blanks. (U.S. automakers tend to have the blanks supplied.)

One thing they didn't do at Marysville: Throw money at the project. A good example is found in the plastics processing part of the plant. The `98 coupe has a rear bumper that's 43% bigger than the existing one. So given the existing equipment, the question was if and how it could be made. The practice for the `97 bumper was to inject the TPO material at high pressure through two points. Working with Honda R&D people, a multi-point low-pressure injection process was optimized for the `98 bumper. Now the material flows through six points. Not only does this provide the required fill for a good part, but they are actually able to make the bigger bumper in the same cycle time as the previous one.

Had they opted to simply buy a bigger injection molding machine, they would have spent $10 million. That's not necessarily the Honda way.