Coating wasn't the only process that was overhauled. Innovations were achieved in the engine assembly line as well—that is, the introduction of "full parts-set delivery."
Conventional engine assembly lines are configured such that necessary parts are transported by dolly and placed at specific workstations along the line so they can be assembled to the engines as they come down the line. By contrast, in the new system introduced at the second plant, all parts needed to build one engine are gathered at a parts collection area and then loaded onto a cart that is sent down the line together with the engine.
This system eliminated the need to send large quantities of parts down both sides of the line and keep dollies in the workstations. As a result, Dongfeng Honda was able to do away with lineside parts delivery, reduce space by 30% from the conventional system, and shorten the line itself by nearly 30%, thereby not only dramatically reducing the amount of energy needed to deliver parts and operate the line, but also significantly improving work efficiency, since associates could work in a closer space on a shorter line. It also succeeded in downsizing infrastructure for transporting finished engines to a minimum, completely eliminating the underground pits and aboveground conveyance systems used in conventional lines.
"Planning for engine assembly at the new plant started with the desire to improve distribution by not having to position parts along the line, and figuring out how to do that," said Masahiro Hirao, Manager of the Engine Plant. "The solution we came up with was full parts-set delivery. This is the D in QCD (quality, cost, delivery). Not having lineside parts delivery allowed us to design spaces that are really easy to work in, reduce assembly errors, and save energy. In other words, improving D also had a large positive effect on C and Q. Having the flexibility of being able to simply lengthen the line for 240,000-unit production is another benefit."
The specialized carts used in this assembly line system were designed in a collaborative effort by local associates who work at the plant. They designed the carts themselves, based on their idea of what would be easiest to use and make work more efficient. It's a good example of the power of human ingenuity to make endless efficiency improvements without the need for large capital outlays.
The new technology with the most impact at Dongfeng Honda's second plant is perhaps its height-adjustable, full-pallet conveyor assembly line.
Compared to typical vehicle body assembly lines, which use hangers as a means of conveyance, this assembly line system uses height-adjustable platforms (pallets) that support the vehicles from below. This system, developed independently by the second plant, has provided a high level of flexibility and a dramatic reduction in job strain, as it allows assembly line operators to raise or lower the pallets to the height that is easiest to work with, thus eliminating the need to bend over or stretch.
"Based on my experience designing different kinds of production lines, a part of me wondered whether we could make a line that was easier on operators—a line that faded into the background, made you forget the equipment was even there...a line that had a minimal number of parts and let people be in control of production," Ikeda recalled. "This full-pallet conveyor system made that dream a reality. Like anywhere else, automobile plants are places where people work, so I wanted to create an assembly line in China that was focused on people. Such an assembly line would naturally be easier on the environment as well; it would be quieter and use less energy. And by eliminating waste and combining functions, we could make the line simple. The end result was the line we have now."
The pallet conveyor system isn't the only thing at the new plant that's people-friendly. Sending all small and medium-sized parts down the production line along with the vehicle as a set, the same concept used in engine assembly lines, has helped to keep lineside parts delivery to a bare minimum and increase work efficiency.
Taking advantage of the benefit of height-adjustable pallets, assembly line operators also now—for the first time at a Honda plant—match the height of the vehicle body to the engine when mounting it, instead of vice versa, which is the conventional method. This lightens the workload but it has also helped to improve mounting precision.
"Another major benefit of this line is that is can easily be adapted to a wide range of future models. By the way, associates working in the same process talk together and decide the pallet height they want for their process. Sometimes I wondered—even worried a little—whether the height they decided was really the easiest to work with, but then when I tried it out for myself it actually felt right. When it comes to actual labor, we should probably listen to what the line operators have to say (smiling)."
Shinji Yasuda, Manager of the Synthetic Resins Section, is also chair of the environmental committee, which oversees all environment-related operational measures at Dongfeng Honda. Yasuda summarized the environmental attributes of the new plant as follows.
"Sometimes striving for environmental innovation doesn’t help with the more important goal of business: profitability. But even I think our second plant does an excellent job of achieving both. To prepare for 240,000-unit production, my hope as the environmental committee chair is to see our 7,000 associates become increasingly aware of the environment. The biggest challenge is figuring out an effective way to promote the environment and educate them on the issues."
In closing, Shimoosaawa shared his own thoughts on what the new plant means.
"Automation isn't everything. The way people think needs to be cutting edge too. It's important that associates at both our first and second plants maintain environmental awareness in their work and put our new plant's technologies to maximum use. Our ambition at Dongfeng Honda is to be the best in the Chinese industry in terms of advanced environmental technologies and awareness."
"Our number-one objective was to create the easiest working environment. We have these facilities and technologies now because we thought long and hard about what kind of plant associates will feel most comfortable and secure working in. As a result, associates have a heightened awareness of their working environment and are able to make their own decisions. It's the 'hard' and 'soft' aspects of this plant that we're most proud of."
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