Nissan Motor Co.'s thirst for knowledge about folding hardtop systems caused Karmann GmbH 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 factory.
"This is the first time Karmann has established such a facility within a manufacturer's plant," says Christian Rennert, Karmann's key account manager for international markets. "We will be monitoring its success with a view to establishing similar facilities elsewhere."
Nissan believed that to ensure quality and speedy production, the roof assembler for the Micra C+C had to be in-house. Nissan also was eager to gain experience producing a coupe convertible rather than subcontract the project to a specialist supplier, something done by many carmakers.
General Motors hired Heuliez SA of France to build its new Opel Tigra TwinTop coupe cabriolet. Ford Motor Co.'s upcoming coupe cabriolet, based on the Focus Vignale concept, will be built by Italy's Pininfarina, as will Mitsubishi Motors Corp.'s upcoming Colt convertible.
Rennert, who is responsible for all Nissan activities at Karmann, says the supplier's biggest challenge was building the team and accepting different work styles. "That is something that should not be underestimated," he says.
The team included engineers and others from Japan, Germany, England and France. Rennert acknowledges that the Japanese work system, which is 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 shown first 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 steel unit shown in 2002.
The roof requires no manual locking or unlocking and 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 employees working directly on the Micra C+C program, plus another 100 specialists from its quality, sales and purchasing areas. Many of these people are based in Sunderland temporarily. When full production starts, just two Karmann employees will remain at the British plant.
Karmann will employ up to 50 local workers to run the Sunderland roof system production facility, operating on a schedule of two shifts a day.
Nissan aims to make about 26,000 units of the Micra C+C in 2006. It will sell for about $20,000.
By comparison, Peugeot sold more than 47,500 units of both the 307 CC and 206 CC in 2004.
Ralf Wiege, the Karmann program director responsible for the Micra C+C project, says Karmann's primary role has been to handle concept work, development engineering and production for Nissan. In particular, Karmann has been responsible for body stiffness, special reinforcements and roof-to-body fit. It also has been responsible for sourcing materials, staffing and logistics within the Nissan environment.
Karmann's two key suppliers are Ogihara Corp., for the steel roof and trunk stampings, and Pilkington PLC, for glass panels. Ogihara supplies the stamped parts from its United Kingdom 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 plants in Rheine and Osnabrueck, Germany.
The Micra C+C project comes at a fortunate time for Karmann. Growth prospects in North America are good. Karmann is building a plant in Plymouth, Mich., to supply a roof system for the Pontiac G6.
But its vehicle assembly in Europe is faltering as some current programs 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.