When Honda began mass-producing its 2007 Acura RDX two weeks ago in its Marysville, Ohio, assembly plant, the new crossover model had two companions on the assembly line.
Honda of America Manufacturing is producing the RDX, a crossover on its new global truck platform, on the same assembly line as its Acura TL and Honda Accord sedans.
The Marysville factory is just one of many examples of flexible assembly plants emerging throughout the industry.
"It's obvious that the days of running 200,000 to 300,000 of a single vehicle are coming to an end," says Kevin Reale, research director in the automotive practice at AMR Research.
"If plants are going to run 200,000 to 300,000, they're going to have to run multiple models. I think it's well understood that's where they have to go."
Yet despite the trend toward flexible lines, more than 60 percent of North American assembly lines are still dedicated to a single model, according to Harbour Consulting, a manufacturing consulting company in Troy, Mich.
The real strides in plant flexibility will occur as automakers retool for new models and build plants, such as General Motors' new Delta Township plant near Lansing, Mich., where the 2007 Saturn Outlook crossover will be built.
A Buick model and a GMC model are slated for production in that plant as well, according to a UAW official close to the situation.
"That's when you can make quantum leaps in flexibility," says Greg Gardner of Harbour Consulting.
There are many other examples of flexible assembly plants today. For instance, early this year, BMW Manufacturing Co. replaced two assembly lines, each devoted to one vehicle, with one flexible line capable of building any of BMW's 35 models in any sequence at its Spartanburg, S.C., assembly plant. BMW assembles its X5 SUV, Z4 and M roadsters, and Z4 and M coupes on its flexible assembly line.
With flexible assembly lines, an automaker can keep running close to capacity by increasing production of better-selling models while lowering the number for slower-selling models.
With dedicated production lines, a slow-selling model means layoffs and carrying unproductive overhead.
In the next 10 years, most assembly plants producing vehicles with unibody construction will be highly flexible, AMR's Reale predicts.
"You're probably going to see anywhere from five to eight different models go down a line," Reale says. In a decade, about 90 percent of the assembly lines in automotive manufacturing plants could be flexible, he says.
Incremental progress will be seen with each model program change every two or three years, Reale says.
"As automakers start consolidating on architectures that they deem standard and flexible, where they can just modify exterior sheet metal and interior components, you will start to see a higher level of flexibility in the plants," he says.
Coming to an agreement on a common architecture for a vehicle to be built globally is a key hurdle to an automaker that wants to be flexible in all regions of the world, Reale says.
"You want to carry that same infrastructure elsewhere," he says. "If an automaker starts tweaking an architecture for different regions, then you are back to having a dedicated assembly line in those regions."
In Japan, Honda is already build-ing eight models on the same assembly line. Honda of America Manufacturing executives in Ohio believe that level of flexibility is possible in Honda's North American plants as well.
Honda is prepared to add even more vehicles on the same line should consumer demand ever warrant it, says John Adams, general manager of manufacturing at Honda of America Manufacturing.
"Equipmentwise, we are just as flexible as in Japan," Adams says.
"In theory, we can build whatever they can. The demands of the market don't necessitate more than three models now."
Honda runs batches or lots of a model, such as an Accord, then switches to a batch of RDX crossovers. Honda uses reprogrammable, or reteachable, robots that can work on all three vehicles on the Marysville line.
Adams is hesitant to talk about other automakers and which ones may be chasing flexibility in their plants.
Says Adams: "In a world of excess auto industry production capacity, flexibility is king when responding to the changes in the market."
You may e-mail Ralph Kisiel at [email protected]