Japanese and South Korean automakers ran the world's most efficient car plants last year despite severely depressed domestic markets, a new study says.
Plants in Japan commanded eight of the top 10 spots in the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit's annual audit of productivity. Korean plants held the other two.
And the efficiency practices were extended overseas. Indeed, all of the world's top 20 plants - which included some in Europe and the United States - were operated by Japanese or South Korean automakers.
Mitsubishi's Mizushima, Japan, plant ranked No. 1 among the 53 rated, with an annual output of 147 vehicles per employee.
The best European-based operation was Nissan's Sunderland, England, plant. It ranked 11th, producing 98 vehicles per worker. Sunderland was well ahead of the next European rival, General Motors' plant in Eisenach, Germany, which came in at 25.
The top North American plant was New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., a GM-Toyota joint venture in Fremont, Calif. It built 87 cars per worker last year, ranking 16th, just ahead of Honda's plants in Ohio.
The EIU bases its ratio on the number of vehicles a plant builds each year. Operations viewed as essential for auto manufacturing - such as stamping, body assembly, painting and final assembly - are counted.
Work usually performed by suppliers, such as seat making, is not included. Plant capacity is not a factor.
Mitsubishi's Mizushima factory towers above the opposition, 20 percent more efficient than its nearest rival, Honda's plant at Suzuka, Japan.
Mizushima's highly flexible format produces nine models. It is also one of the world's highest-volume plants, building 579,000 vehicles last year.
The EIU analysts said Mizushima benefits from a high degree of automation in the final-assembly area. About 20 percent of operations there are automated, a feature it shares with several other Japanese plants.
A renewed dedication to efficiency in Japanese factories, said the EIU, has reduced employee levels in several plants. But the report predicted that falling output in Japan will damage productivity levels by the end of this year.
The Japanese operate their production lines to suit demand. Many European systems, in contrast, operate at full capacity every day and shut down to adjust to lower demand during lean periods.
The EIU argued that European plants 'may be shut for as much as one day a week, which affects the operation of the plant adversely and is bad for the morale of the workers.'
But Nissan's young, adaptable work force in the United Kingdom was given credit. The Sunderland plant also benefited from producing models designed to be easily built in partnership with component suppliers.
South Korean inroads
While the Japanese dominated the top five spots, the South Koreans continued to make inroads. Daewoo's new Nubira plant in Kunsan ranked sixth, at 103 cars per employee, and its plant in Changwon registered ninth. Five South Korean operations moved above the 90-car level last year.
The EIU warned that South Korea's performance, despite an anticipated 35 percent drop in production this year, posed a real threat to European and North American manufacturers. South Korean productivity levels have climbed with a new generation of easily produced cars.
Ford's Escort plant in Wayne, Mich. (No. 23), was the most efficient wholly owned Big 3 plant in North America. The report noted that U.S. productivity is affected by the common practice of building stamping plants apart from assembly plants.
Most European and Japanese assembly plants, in contrast, include stamping operations.
Fiat's showcase Melfi plant is justifying the Italian company's claims made at its opening in 1993. Melfi and Volkswagen's plant in Navarra, Spain, shared the highest rankings (31st) among domestic European companies.
An earlier EIU survey, released in August, illustrated the yawning gap between the best of the Asian manufacturers and the least efficient European operators.
Workers at Peugeot-Citroen's Sochaux plant, in eastern France, produced just 25 cars apiece last year, about one-sixth the rate achieved by the world leader, Mitsubishi.
The innovative Nedcar plant, a joint Volvo-Mitsubishi venture in the Netherlands, tied for fourth-lowest place in a selected group of European plants alongside Rover's Longbridge and Skoda's Czech Mlada Boleslav counterparts.
Skoda was penalized for having 5,000 people producing transmissions and dies for the engineering and transport sector, with 1,100 people also building engines.
As a result, the EIU parameters mean that the equivalent number of employees is much lower than the total head count in several plants.
Model changes - involving plant refitting, staff recruitment and training - have damaged productivity ratings at Toyota and Honda factories in the United Kingdom.
Written and reported by Hugh Hunston in London and David Versical in Detroit.