Nissan's thirst for knowledge about folding hardtop systems caused Karmann to do something unprecedented: open a subplant within the Japanese carmaker's factory in Sunderland, England.
The German supplier has set up a roof system production line for the Nissan Micra C+C coupe convertible inside the UK factory.
"This is the first time Karmann has established such a facility within a manufacturer's plant," said Christian Rennert, Karmann's key account manager for international markets, "and we will be monitoring its success with a view to establishing similar facilities elsewhere."
Nissan believed that to ensure quality and speed of manufacture the roof assembler for the Micra C+C had to be in-house. Plus, Nissan was anxious to gain direct experience producing a coupe convertible rather than subcontract the whole project to a specialist supplier, something that many other carmakers do.
GM allows Heuliez of France to build its new Tigra TwinTop coupe cabriolet. Ford and Mitsubishi will do the same for the their forthcoming coupe cabriolets, both of which will be assembled by Pininfarina in Italy.
Rennert, who has responsibility for all Nissan activities at Karmann, said "the challenging issue for us as the chosen partner was building the team and accepting the different working styles. That is something that should not be underestimated."
The team comprised engineers and others from Japan, Germany, the UK and France and Rennert acknowledges that the Japanese working system, which was rigorous and process-driven, was a new experience for the non-Japanese members of the team.
Engineering a retractable folding roof for the C+C concept, which was first shown at the 2002 Paris auto show, proved a major challenge. The two-piece roof is the first to be made with glass panels, a departure from the all-steel unit first shown in 2002.
Requiring no manual locking or unlocking, the roof takes 22 seconds to fold clamshell-style beneath the double-hinged trunk lid. That's about the same time it takes for the folding hardtops to open on the rival Peugeot 307 CC and 206 CC.
Karmann has had 30 to 40 personnel directly working on the Micra C+C program, plus another 100 assorted specialists from its quality, sales and purchasing areas. Right now many of these people are temporarily based in Sunderland, but once full production starts just two Karmann employees will remain at the UK plant.
Karmann will employ up to 50 local employees who will run the Sunderland roof system production facility, which will operate on a schedule of two shifts a day.
Nissan aims to make about 26,000 units of the E16,000-E17,000 Micra C+C in 2006. Output goes to 20,000 a year starting in 2007. Of the 20,000, Nissan expects to sell 6,000 in the UK. The rest will be exported.
Karmann workers are is fine tuning the supplier's roof assembly processes for the Nissan Micra C+C.
Ralf Wiege, the Karmann program director responsible for the Micra C+C project, says Karmann's main role has been to handle concept work, development engineering and production for Nissan. In particular, the German supplier has been responsible for body stiffness, special reinforcements and roof-to-body fit. It has also been responsible for sourcing of the material supplies, staffing and logistics within the Nissan environment and will be fully integrated into Nissan's production control schedule in the future. Karmann's two key suppliers are Ogihara, for the steel roof and trunk pressings, and Pilkington, for glass panels. Ogihara supplies the pressing from its UK plant. Painting of the steel roof areas is done by Nissan prior to roof assembly.
Karmann also provides a folding hardtop for Nissan alliance partner Renault's Megane CC, but that unit is assembled by Karmann in Germany before being transported to Renault for final assembly in France. Convertible roof and final assembly for the Audi A4, Mercedes-Benz CLK and Chrysler Crossfire models are completed in Karmann's own facilities in Rheine and Osnabrück, Germany.
The Micra C+C project comes at a fortunate time for Karmann. Although growth prospects in North America are good - Karmann is building a new plant in Plymouth, Michigan, to supply a roof system for the Pontiac G6 - its vehicle assembly in Europe is faltering as some current program reach their run-out phases.
Establishing its credentials as a specialist roof supplier capable of fully integrating assembly operations into a customer's plant might provide an important competitive boost. Should Nissan choose to build more coupe convertible versions of it cars, Karmann would be well placed to benefit.