Yamashita bolstered U.S. r&d during revival
Earliest Nissan involvement: 1979
Role: Executive vice president of r&d, Nissan Motor Co.
Key influence: Helped set up Nissan Technical Center North America in the late 1980s and led the r&d center during the company's revival in 2002-04
It was time to shift from recovery to growth. So Mitsuhiko Yamashita was dispatched from Japan to America to head what soon would be a driving force in Nissan's resurgence.
Nissan Technical Center North America Inc. had been the company's local r&d incubator for more than a decade. Yamashita himself had set it up in the late 1980s.
But along the way, Nissan had lost touch with U.S. customers and fallen behind in rolling out sorely needed new models. So in 2002, CEO Ghosn sent the veteran back to lead a massive expansion of the suburban Detroit center as a means of jump-starting North American operations.
“The biggest problem at that time for Nissan r&d was a lack of engineering capacity. So why not increase it on site? That was our first priority,” recalls Yamashita, who was president of the tech center from 2002 to 2004. He now heads global r&d at Nissan.
Under his watch, Nissan embarked on a $38.8 million expansion of the technical center that supported an unprecedented product introduction program. The blueprint called for an additional engineering building, a new styling studio and a new testing operations center.
In total, Nissan expanded the tech center by 50 percent to nearly 500,000 square feet. Nissan also took on 260 additional engineers, hiring from Detroit 3 rivals and pushing staffing to more than 800. Today, about 1,000 work at the center.
Before 2003, Nissan had been building three models at one U.S. assembly plant. But by year end, the company was aiming for four models at that plant and five models at a new second factory.
In the works were the Titan pickup and Armada SUV, as well as a redesigned Quest minivan and Maxima and Altima sedans. Local engineering would be more important than ever.
“We had a long history in the United States, but we still needed to be there to fully understand customer preferences, everyday driving behaviors and what features are necessary,” Yamashita says. “Of course, we knew the principles before, but knowing and believing are different. Local people really persuaded us about what is necessary to succeed in the U.S. market.”
Input from the center was critical to the success of Nissan's new lineup.
For example, U.S. engineers designed features for the Titan that their Japanese counterparts never could have dreamed of, such as the spray bedliner and wide-swinging doors.
“In Japan, we didn't have any experience with such truck development or full-sized SUVs,” Yamashita says. “That size is not understood well by Japanese people. It's too large.”
The Altima's headlights and interior roominess were other examples of local influence.
About 70 percent of the development of vehicles manufactured in the United States now happens at the U.S. technical center, Yamashita says. That eye for local needs has helped boost Nissan's market share.
Getting there was a long journey for Yamashita, 55. He joined Nissan in 1979 after studying aeronautical engineering at Kyoto University.
In 1988, he was part of a four-person team sent to Michigan to establish the r&d center. They set up temporary shop in one suburb while the center was being built in another, Farmington Hills.
“We had to do everything,” Yamashita recalls. “Select partners, find engineers, get outsourcing, find vendors and find a building site. I wasn't just a car engineer. I was a building engineer.”
Today, the center is a potent symbol of Nissan's commitment to succeeding in the United States. But Yamashita doesn't expect another big building boom there.
“I don't have drastic expansion plans for Michigan anymore,” Yamashita says. “We should look for lower costs and seek out talented people in Mexico.”
Yamashita's new duties cast a wider net. As Nissan's r&d chief, he now is the point man for Ghosn's promise to introduce 15 new technologies a year starting in 2009.
“We will be known again as a technology leader,” he vowed late last year. “People thought of Nissan that way once. In the 1990s, our company became a little shaky, and we lost some momentum. But they will think of us that way again.”
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