When Nissan North America Inc. talks about the additional cars and trucks it wants to build in the next couple of years, there is an extra challenge implicit in the plan.
"You can't move cars off the assembly lines unless they have engines in them," says Chuck Cooper, plant manager of Nissan's powertrain plant at Decherd, Tenn., in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
In the past two years, as Nissan worked to expand vehicle production simultaneously at three U.S. and Mexican plants, the company also was quietly pouring $500 million into the Decherd engine and transaxle plant. The result is the transformation of a 230,000-square-foot assembly shop into a 1 million-square-foot plant that soon will supply 1 million engines a year.
The original Nissan Powertrain Assembly plant assembled four- and six-cylinder engines and transaxles for Altimas. But that 370-employee factory has been converted into a highly automated machining and assembly plant, serving as the sole source for a new family of V-8 truck engines, as well as V-6s and inline-fours, that will employ 1,200 people by year end.
Decherd will supply the 5.6-liter V-8 for Nissan's new family of full-sized pickups and SUVs, which go into production this fall in Canton, Miss. It will supply a 3.5-liter V-6 for the new generation of the Quest minivan, also built in Mississippi, as well as the Maxima sedan, which went into U.S. production, in Smyrna, Tenn., for the first time this year. It will supply the V-6 and the 2.5-liter inline-four for the Altima, which will be built in Smyrna and Canton, and the Pathfinder, which will be added to Smyrna's lineup in 2005. Additionally, it will supply the Mexico-made Sentra.
How Nissan made the transformation and how its North American managers made decisions about tooling the factory speak volumes about the nature of present-day Nissan.
Arguably, Decherd is where "old Nissan" hit the wall. It was here that in 1991 Nissan announced plans to spend $600 million to build an integrated powertrain plant that would supply the Japanese automaker's North American needs for the 1990s.
But the project's timing was bad. Even as Nissan unveiled its plan, the company was experiencing a flow of red ink that halted the Tennessee project. Four years later, instead of building the full-scale engine center it had planned, Nissan built just a fraction of it - an $80 million assembly shop 90 minutes away from Nissan's Smyrna manufacturing headquarters.