NASHVILLE -- Ashley Frye was named executive director this year of the Tennessee Automotive Manufacturers Association, the industry trade group that represents 169 auto supplier member companies in the state. The Nashville native went to work for Nissan Motor Co. in 1981 when the company was building its first U.S. assembly plant in Smyrna, Tenn. He left in 2003 to join Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama when it was constructing its first U.S. plant in Montgomery, Ala. He rose to vice president of production at Hyundai before retiring last year. Frye, 63, spoke to with News Editor Lindsay Chappell in Nashville.
Q: You watched transplant automaking evolve over the past 35 years. Did Nissan's and Hyundai's approaches to building cars seem strange in the early days?
A: They did to me, but for a different reason. I went to work in auto manufacturing straight out of the Army. In the Army, your boss says do something and you'd better get it done quick. You didn't argue with him. At Nissan, the most remarkable thing was that the management sought input into all the decisions that came up. They called it collaborative culture. I'd never heard of such a thing. They would ask people what they thought about decisions, and get people involved in discussing issues, even though the boss would have to make the final decision.
Was that a trendy management approach in the 1980s?
No, it wasn't. I didn't see it anywhere else -- not at suppliers, not at other OEMs, not among consultants. It was very unusual and refreshing to an ex-Army guy.
Were those early days fairly high-tech?
Not really. Nissan's Smyrna plant was constructed in 1981 using paper drawings. We didn't get desktop computers at Nissan until 1986. Nissan wasn't behind -- I just mean that to illustrate that the industry was still very manual. I remember when we made the first efforts to computerize how assembly was organized at Nissan. I was a process engineer in general assembly. I and another guy there thought, there has to be some way to use a computer to piece together the processes, the order of assembly, the illustrations and instructions of how to build the car. Once we figured that out, at our fairly low level, it really streamlined the job, and we presented it to upper management.
Twenty years later, when the Hyundai plant opened in 2005, how much had technology changed?
There was much more automation. Hyundai was advanced in how they laid out the plant for automation. We launched using robots to install batteries, cockpit modules, seats, windshield and the backlight.
What else struck you as a step forward in operations at Hyundai?
The truck docks. Hyundai put delivery docks all around the building, and that was very striking. Most big plants are like rectangular boxes, with a row of docks along one side. So the logistics guys normally have to figure out how to move everything from there through the plant. But Hyundai put docks everywhere, close to where they needed to be. You could always see people looking at it and saying, "Why didn't we think of that?"
Did you see more innovation and sophistication after the plant launched?
Ergonomics was an ongoing issue for us there. We were always looking for opportunities to improve the way people did their job. We elevated one of the conveyors so workers didn't have to bend over. We installed more automation so no one had to lift a heavy part.
When Hyundai launched, it relied heavily on its traditional suppliers from Korea. Did that change in later years?
When Hyundai came over, it was already looking for companies to help it improve its cost structure. That effort is still going on.
Will more supplier intermingling take place in the Southeast -- German companies working with Nissan and Korean suppliers working with Volkswagen and Mercedes, and so forth?
That's the way of globalization. And it's one thing I hope to help along at the Tennessee association now, to work with economic development agencies to help existing suppliers here establish ties with more automakers.
What else is on your to-do list at the association?
Part of my mission is to strengthen existing suppliers, making sure they know what state resources are available to them. Every business is interested in work force development, and there are state programs they can use. There are grants available, there are processes to obtain tax abatements. I want to help them learn what's available.
But I also know there is strength in numbers. And we haven't come close in this region to getting suppliers to join up to create a stronger voice in all things automotive.