Adaptability helps Honda weather industry changes
Flexible manufacturing system matches production to sales to reduce excess inventory, incentives
But Honda already was producing as many Civics as it could in its assembly plants in East Liberty, Ohio, and Alliston, Ontario.
No problem for Honda's flexible manufacturing plants.
The company simply moved production of the Honda Pilot crossover from the Canadian plant to Honda's light-truck plant in Lincoln, Ala., where it makes the Honda Odyssey minivan. That move allowed Honda to build more Civics in Canada.
So when gasoline prices topped $4 in 2008, Honda was better able to meet demand for its Civic.
Honda's flexible manufacturing was designed to coordinate profitable production at the company's six assembly plants in the United States, Canada and Mexico. It now is helping the automaker survive the recession.
The system uses sophisticated computer controls and robots to build vehicles of different sizes and platforms on the same assembly line. This allows the automaker to dial up production of vehicles that are selling and to cut production of those that aren't.
Mixing cars and trucks
Honda began to adopt flexible manufacturing in 2000. The transformation ranged from installing programmable electronic robots that weld different vehicle body types on the same line to clever but simple modifications that enable conveyors to carry different body sizes down the assembly line.
All Honda assembly plants adopted a standard layout so vehicles are assembled the same way in all of its plants.
With flexibility, Honda of Canada Manufacturing increased Civic production in 2007 by adding the compact car to the same assembly line that produced Honda's two largest vehicles, the Honda Ridgeline pickup truck and the Acura MDX crossover.
Flexible manufacturing is also maximizing production at the Lincoln light-truck plant as sales of trucks fall.
In this economy, an assembly plant that builds three light trucks — the Odyssey, Pilot and Ridgeline — requires life support. So the Lincoln plant is preparing to add some V-6 Accord production from Marysville, Ohio, by midyear. It will be Lincoln's first car.
"I would argue that we're the most flexible in the industry," said Tim Downing, chief engineer and new-model division manager at Honda of America Manufacturing Inc. in Marysville. "When the truck segment really started shrinking up, we looked at all the product availability in North America. It makes sense that we can build the Accord in Alabama without brick and mortar. It's really an equipment modification."
The V-6 Accord will give the Lincoln plant its first global Honda model, Downing said. The Odyssey, Pilot and Ridgeline are primarily designed for North America.
"For us, the Accord gives us a connection back to the r&d side of product design in Japan," said Chuck Ernst, plant manager at Honda Manufacturing of Alabama LLC in Lincoln. "So we get the best of both worlds now. We've got North American-specific light-truck models, but also we're going to get involved in the global model with the V-6 Accord."
Even the Marysville Auto Plant — Honda's oldest plant, which began production in 1982 — has been transformed into a flexible factory. Honda added the Acura RDX crossover to Marysville in 2006, placing it on the same line with the Accord and Acura TL sedans.