Crossing Boundaries to International Production
The official groundbreaking for Belgium Honda's factory at Aalst took place in October 1962.
Hoping to be ready for the coming spring's motorcycle sales season, Iwamura needed to have some completed products, even if it meant only a few of them. He gave instructions to proceed with construction on the factory operation, which was set to begin in February 1963.
The construction schedule allowed just over four months, from start to finish. For the Belgians, however, such a plan seemed rather unreasonable. The work had been contracted to a Belgian firm whose company officers came to Ryoji Matsui, the man in charge of factory completion, landscaping, and power, with a different suggestion. "In Belgium," they said, "it rains or snows more than half the year. We simply cannot make an irresponsible promise regarding the exact date that work will be finished. So, we'd like you to think in terms of the number of actual work days written here." With that, they began to explain the process, referring to their schedule.
That document detailed the various processes of construction and the schedule for work, including the number of actual work days needed to complete each step. However, the scheduled completion date for each process had been left blank.
"In Japan," Matsui said, "when construction falls behind schedule, the contract assignor and the contractor know what to do without having to discuss much. They'll try hard to catch up, even if it means increasing the number of workers or speeding up construction by working overtime and on weekends and holidays. But things didn't work that way in Belgium. In fact, the law prohibited them from working on weekends or holidays."
The actual construction, however, moved along at an incredible pace. In fact, at one point it seemed their work would be completed in time for the start of operations in the spring. Winter was still upon them, though, and soon the entire region found itself in the throes of a major cold snap. The ground froze solid, and was then buried under deep drifts of snow. Construction had to be delayed, forcing an increase in the number of days needed. The Japanese employees stationed at Belgium Honda began to worry, saying, "At this rate, we'll never make it in time for the start of operations this spring."
To make matters worse, that December the Belgian government issued an order prohibiting outdoor construction out of concern for those working in the extreme cold. As a result, Honda's entire construction process had to be put on hold. Therefore, Belgium Honda's Japanese associates decided to use that time to establish routes for the procurement of parts. After all, these routes would be their lifelines for regional production. Still, they knew there would be many obstacles. Although they searched all of Belgium for companies that could supply parts made to Honda's specifications, they could not seem to find one. The search had to be extended to the Netherlands and West Germany.
Building the factory in Belgium. The construction was rapid from the start, but nevertheless was suspended for four months after a cold wave struck the region.
Building the factory.
Laws were already on the books in Europe concerning consumer protection and the assurance of product reliability. Manufacturers were obliged to continue product supplies for at least ten years once they were on the market. Moreover, they were obliged to maintain sufficient inventories for that period. Such laws affected local parts manufacturers greatly in the way they managed their businesses.
For example, the leading production method was to complete a lot of parts on order. Therefore, for a company to supply Honda, it would have to employ new facilities to meet the demands of mass production, if it did not already have them. It was hardly a positive situation, since the price quotations Honda began receiving were several times higher than those it could get in Japan.
Further creating difficulties for Honda was the fact that Belgium had no industrial standards resembling Japan's JIS (Japanese Industrial Standard). That the situation varied among different countries in Europe made obtaining parts even more difficult.
The winter delay had dragged on for four months, but at last construction work could be resumed. It was March 1963. "It was one crash project after another," Iwamura recalled. The local people, too, were astonished at the speed with which things were being done. On May 27, 1963 despite the fact that a portion of the building was yet unfinished, the factory shifted into operation, producing its very first Super Cub (C100).
Front view of the factory at Belgium Honda. Today it produces automobile parts.
"We were able to complete factory construction in the eight short months, counting the period in which work was suspended, only because of the dedicated efforts of Belgium Honda's staff, along with our contractor," explained Okayasu. "The local people had at first found it difficult to comprehend our method of first deciding on the factory's opening date and then finding ways to meet that goal. But once we reached our goal, they said, "This is certainly a different way of getting work done!" After that, they really began to trust us."