In May, Honda Motor Co. opened its second assembly plant in Lincoln, Ala. The two production lines, which the automaker calls Line One and Line Two, form an operation that will employ 4,200 people building a total of 300,000 minivans and SUVs and 300,000 engines a year. Line One opened in December 2001.
Masaaki Kato is CEO of Honda Manufacturing of Alabama LLC, which operates the complex.
Kato, 53, joined Honda in 1974 and has held other positions there including head of global quality and director for Honda r&d.
He spoke with Staff Reporter Lindsay Chappell in Lincoln.
How did the launch of Line Two compare with that of Line One?
Until now, Line One of the Lincoln plant was the newest plant we had. When we launched it, we learned a great deal about the issues we faced in Line Two construction.
The basic concept is a mirror image, but we thought of many improvements along the way, especially in the area of construction management. We approached it much more efficiently.
As a result, while Line One took 20 months to launch, Line Two took 17 months.
How did you do that?
In the case of Line One, scheduling the construction and the introduction of plant equipment onto the site created some amount of confusion. We had to go through many schedule changes, which we wanted to avoid for the second plant.
It also helped that the same people who went through the Line One construction participated in the second plant. They were aware of the need for improvements.
And we used the same building contractor. So he, too, brought that experience to the second project.
Honda has said a lot about creating a manufacturing system that permits faster and easier model launches. How will that happen?
Several years ago, we drew up this new manufacturing system that provides flexibility for many models.
The two big changes were to create common processes from line to line and also the change to a flexible welding system.
Our line here in Alabama is such a system. The new Line Two currently builds the Odyssey plus the Pilot. But in October or November, it will also begin building the new-generation Odyssey. Line One, which currently only builds the Odyssey, will also have the opportunity to change to a flexible line with a different model.
What do you gain in terms of schedule?
In Japan, some models moved from our Sayama plant to Suzuka in only four or five months. We can quickly change location of the models.
Our new system here is the same concept.
How many nameplates could you build in Lincoln?
Probably three on one line.
Could you build three on one line and three completely different ones on the other line?
Yes. It would take some investment to make changes to the lines.
Canada is already doing three on one of its lines.
You've developed a pattern whereby Honda of Canada takes responsibility for launching a nameplate and then hands off volume production to Alabama. Why do you do it that way?
When we started construction in Alabama, Canada was already producing the Odyssey, and the demand was very strong.
It had matured by the time Alabama opened, and it's much easier for a new plant to build a mature model.
But we're now preparing for a new Odyssey this August, and it will be a completely brand-new model.
But it is a very big challenge for anyone to build a new model.
In Japan, our Sayama and Suzuka factories both have much experience in launching new models, but they still have trouble with it.
So it would be very, very challenging for us to do it.
Yet some of your competitors are hiring a new work force and entrusting them with an all-new product.
I think that must be very difficult.
One of the reasons for our success, I believe, is that we start factory production with a mature model.
When Canada built the first Odyssey, it was also constructing a second line, and that was a big challenge.
At that time, I was in charge of quality in Japan, and I had to go to Canada many times.
How much experience is necessary before a plant can take on all-new product? Will Alabama reach that point?
It took Honda 20 months to launch the Odyssey production line in Alabama.
My philosophy is that we must call on all of Honda for help, from Honda of America as well as Honda of Japan.
But you know, Honda of America has maybe 25 years of experience, and they still have some problems with a new-model change. The same with Honda in Japan.
Is all of this learning experience in North America - not just in constructing factories but in launching new products and so forth - helping Honda elsewhere in the world?
We've learned much in the North American operations.
Our experience finds its way back to the rest of Honda. Honda UK has benchmarked Alabama on engine casting.
Honda is not so centralized. Each region has responsibility for its own operation, independently.
Some portion of each region's responsibility we share globally, especially in manufacturing. We have inter-regional meetings every two months and share information.
In the case of sliding passenger doors, for example, Europe has no model that requires sliding doors. But if they did at some time in the future, we could transfer our knowledge to them.
Honda can build factories faster now. But what about the rest of the world - all of those contractors, suppliers and the state employee training offices? Can they keep up with your pace?
Well, in the case of Line Two, they did.