Make Five

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One of the automotive phenomena in Europe over the last three years has been the rise and rise of the compact minivan. The trail blazed by Renault with the innovative Scenic has been spectacularly successful, but the niche it carved out for itself has now been besieged by a number of other manufacturers, including Nissan, that all want a piece of the action. The secret in being able to exploit these niche areas has been the adoption of a common platform strategy so that quantities that were once unsustainable have now become viable.

Assembling the Nissan Tino in Spain. It is the fifth model being built in the plant.

In developing the Almera Tino, its own compact minivan, Nissan has used the same MS (medium/small) platform as the Almera hatchback (see AM&P, Feb. '00; pp. 20-21) and the Japanese Tino. However, although it might share the name and platform as the latter, it is altogether a different animal and has been thoroughly "Europeanised" in the hands of the Nissan Technical Centre (NTC) in Britain and Nissan Motor Iberica SA (NMISA) in Spain.

Although built in NMISA's Zona Franca factory in Spain, a pilot plant was initially established in Japan in April/May 1999 to build the first production trial cars using components sourced from actual production suppliers in Europe, and with panels pressed using the production dies destined for Spain. Up to 100 Spanish engineers—from project leaders to line workers—worked on the pilot build before returning to Spain to train other NMISA staff.

In September 1999 the first Tinos were built in at the Zona Franca plant using Japanese-built bodies followed two months later by the first models with Spanish-built bodies on the new production line in the first trial phase. March this year saw the second trial phase and the commencement of full production. A total of 28 cars were built at the NMISA off-line stage, 68 at the T1 stage, and 118 in the T2 stage. By this time, every senior Nissan executive had driven the model and had the opportunity to voice their opinions.

Producing just 77,122 vehicles last year, the Zona Franca plant has hardly warranted a mention in the overall scheme of things, and has tended to fall in the shadow of the Nissan plant at Sunderland in northeast England. Not only is the output of Sunderland nearly five times greater, but it has gloried in being seen as Europe's most efficient car factory for the last three years. However, the Spanish plant is in the process of being transformed into something that is a portent for the future, one in which flexibility is paramount, as its whole raison d'etre is to serve niche markets. At the same time, though, following a $250-million investment, the addition of a fifth vehicle has sharply accelerated capacity to 125,000 units this year, going up to a theoretical total of 160,000 next year with the addition of a third shift.

The challenge in all this was to add a fifth model without extending the plant and without disrupting existing production. Uniquely in Europe, the new model runs in part down the same line as three other, substantially different vehicles: the 4x4 Terrano II SUV, the Serena minivan and the Vanette Cargo line. While 49 new robots were added specifically for the Tino, their use is combined with manual operations to provide maximum flexibility.

As it weaves in and out of the two other product lines before and after all three come together for welding, the Tino line has to make the best use of the precious little amount of factory space that is available. This it does in textbook fashion, cutting line-side storage to a minimum, adding some line-side sub-assembly facilities and controlling every part of the process with great attention to detail.

Computers hold the secret of Nissan's success in seemingly extracting a quart from the pint-size production line pot. From the early stages of body build, each car gets an electronic identity. Stored in a transponder chip, it travels with the vehicle right through the build sequence.

Once the Tino's floor and engine compartment have been made, it moves to a sub-assembly line shared with the Terrano II where the sides and floor pan are brought together. Then the doors, tailgate and hood are fitted. While the Terrano II moves onto a dedicated line, the Tino joins the Serena and Vanette Cargo lines. Following its journey along NMISA's mixed body line, the Tino takes a turn into the door assembly area, where an interesting innovation is claimed to have freed-up no less than 500 square metres of valuable floor space.

Explains engineering projects manager Jordi Zabaleta: "Rather than taking up space to stack batches of built-up doors alongside the line, we decided to build them here instead. We make two sets at a time in a single press which has fast-change tooling—and it works perfectly because it only takes us 20 seconds to change the dies."

Greater efficiency is also said to stem from siting presses for the assembly of the Tino's hood and tailgate alongside the line. Because space is at a greater premium than usual, the line transporting partly assembled cars is raised between the working areas of its twisty route. But factory officials hit on a simple solution to the need to provide operatives with optimum working conditions at various heights.

"Instead of spending a huge amount of money on altering the conveyor system, we went for the cheaper option of raising the height of the floor by up to 1.8 metres so that the most comfortable working height has been achieved for certain operations," says Zabaleta.

When the doors have been fitted, it then makes its way to the new paint shop that operates on batch sizes of one so it can handle every shape, size and colour of vehicle on a single track. Finally, the vehicle moves into the final assembly area. The Tino and Terrano II have their own assembly lines where the engine, axle, wheels and braking systems are added, followed by the interior.

Just-in-time component delivery has been a key factor in allowing Tino assembly to be shoehorned into Zona Franca without the need for investment in new buildings.

"This is a multi-purpose factory where several different types of vehicles are built," says Raphael Boronat, Nissan Motor Iberica's managing director. "Introducing our first passenger car model on the most modern Nissan platform has been quite a challenge and a very important step for us.

"JIT applies just as much to the plastic bumper mouldings and manual transmissions we make on site to the components we receive from outside suppliers. The lead-time from ordering a manual transmission to it being assembled in the car is down to only 50 minutes. This is the best anywhere in Nissan," says Boronat, "and is especially impressive when you consider that the on-site plant is supplying all five models built by NMISA, and not only Tino. Additionally the maximum number of bodies held in storage after body assembly is 40—and that's a mixture of all the five models we produce, not just Tino."

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