New IP process helps U.S. take lead global role for Honda manufacturing

  • 09-Sep-2012 01:54 EDT
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The instrument panel is loaded into the ultrasonic knife fixture at the Marysville, OH, plant by associate Bryan DeLong.

Honda’s U.S. operations are in the process of becoming the company’s world center for manufacturing. All the manufacturing processes for the company's vehicles worldwide will be developed by Honda of America Manufacturing Inc., whether the car or truck is made in North America or not. And symbolic of the new authority is the introduction of an in-plant process for a one-piece instrument panel (IP) for the 2013 Accord now in production at the Marysville, OH, plant.

The decision to move the development responsibility for manufacturing processes from Japan to the U.S. is logical: after 30 years of making vehicles and components here, the North American production capacity is 1.63 million units, Honda’s largest in the world and more than 60% greater than in Japan. And with a new facility being completed in Mexico to build the Fit and other small vehicles starting in 2014, the capacity will rise to 1.87 million vehicles. That’s in line with Honda’s aim to build in N.A. well over 90% of the cars it sells here and also double the number of Honda N.A. exports from the present 100,000 units.

The vehicle assembly plants have high initial quality ratings from J.D. Power, including a platinum rating for the Indiana plant (Civic and variants, and Acura ILX) and silver for Marysville, OH, where the Accord and Acura TL are built. Other automobile assembly plants in operation are in East Liberty, OH (Crosstour, CRV, and Acura RDX); Alabama (Odyssey, Pilot, Ridgeline, and engines); Ontario, Canada (Civic, CR-V, Acura MDX), and Jaisco, Mexico (Accord). Component-only plants are in Anna, OH (engines) and Russells Point, OH (transmissions).

Marysville was the first, opening in 1982. It produces the one-piece Accord IP without even the hint of an outer "skin" outline for the passenger airbag. One-piece IPs are not new, even for Honda, but this is its first worldwide to be made in-house, and eliminating that airbag seam or even outline is an ultra-precision process.

The procedure is performed primarily on an island of plant floor that is about six feet deep, separate from but level with the rest of the shop floor. However, the depth of the special foundation means it’s free of vibration from other factory operations.

The IP plastic substrate is injection-molded in the plant, explained Lonnie Thompson, Project Leader-Plastics. A one-piece combo cushion and outer skin (top coating) comes in from a supplier, where it’s attached by vacuum molding to the substrate. Then the one-piece IP is inserted into an oven as a test, to ensure there is no bubbling from this step.

Next, the one-piece IP is installed in a jig, upside down, and a robot operates a milling machine that cuts a rectangle for the airbag location part of the way through the substrate only. Another section of the robotic system then makes three slits in the milled outline with an ultrasonic knife, one at each side and a third in the center of the airbag location. The knife cuts through the mill slot in the substrate, through the cushion, and finally just scores the inner surface of the outer skin, but it doesn’t cut all the way through—leaving 0.44 mm (0.017 in) of skin and no seam visible to passengers. The knife must work within a tolerance of ±0.06 mm (0.002-in), Thompson said. That section of the IP flips open hinge-like when the airbag itself deploys.

An A/C duct and the airbag hinge then are vibration-welded to the substrate.

The IP is removed from that fixture and installed in another jig that goes down a sub-assembly line, where the steering column and glovebox are attached and the airbag is installed, attached to the hinge—and later (with three bolts) to the cross-car IP beam.

The previous Accord IP was composed of four separate pieces and had 16 seams. The new design can reasonably be expected to be squeak-free. And the physical appearance of the IP to passengers is a continuous surface.

The Anna plant is the U.S. site for production of the new Accord “Earth Dreams” powertrain line, which features a new 2.4-L direct-injection engine, plus the pulleys for the new CVT (continuously variable transmission) that will be built in the transmission facility at nearby Russells Point. That transmission plant also is where Honda will make the two-motor CVT-e (electronic) for the forthcoming plug-in hybrid Accord.

Anna is Honda’s original powerplant facility and remains state of the art. When a second engine plant was being built in Alabama, the engineering team was sent to Anna with the only instructions being non-instructions: don’t compile a “cookbook” on the Anna recipe. Rather, “look at how it’s being done now, and make sure you do it better,” explained Rick Schostek, Senior Vice President of Honda of America Manufacturing Inc.

One simple but time- and energy-saving change at Alabama was when casting processes were being set up and tested. The engine block casting was made with aluminum cylinder sleeves instead of the production cast iron. So when the setup work was done, all that had to be done is melt entire components, rather than first pull out the sleeves.

Honda, like Toyota, prefers not to be first with the newest production technology, relying on quality from improved training of assembly line associates. Although laser and other electronic measurements are done throughout the Honda plants today to ensure quality, the company continues with low-tech approaches on the assembly line itself. As examples, Honda cited the use by associates at installation stations of templates to confirm alignment of hood and body emblems and other trim.

Consolidation of parts packages for the assembly line, once performed off-site and delivered to the plants, now is done largely on-site, although there are physical limitations to completely on-site consolidation.

The manufacturing processes assignment means that the U.S. engineering team will be responsible for developing the ways Honda production will be done worldwide, including Japan. Schostek noted that because Honda of America Manufacturing exports to 100 countries, it already has relationships and familiarity with local requirements, such as the headlamp washers for Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Its worldwide responsibilities notwithstanding, Honda of America Manufacturing still has to maintain focus on North America. Its East Liberty plant is undergoing a major overhaul while maintaining normal production. Honda is a year and a half into the changeover, which will, like Marysville, include sub-lines for doors and IPs. Like Honda’s rolling model changes, which proceed with no more than vacation shutdowns, there will be no loss of production and it should be complete in two years. Any major tie-ins are scheduled for the two one-week vacations periods in summer and winter, and any minor drop in production can be handled with overtime.

Honda’s home base in Japan still is the place where “Honda-the-engine-company” maintains key powertrain R&D faculties for worldwide products, and that is not going to change. Although the manufacturing processes will be developed in the U.S., of course there will be considerable engineering input from Japan.

The Japanese R&D center obviously will do powertrain engineering for the new NSX, but the overall engineering responsibility also was transferred to the U.S. R&D facility in Raymond, OH, a prestigious recognition of its capability. The Raymond center has been responsible for full development of 24 vehicles since 1990, including six of the 18 Honda/Acura products on sale this year.

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