SUNDERLAND, England - Renault wants to learn all it can from Nissan's best-in-class assembly plant here. But combining production methods won't be easy because the new partners have different manufacturing and sourcing philosophies.
Nissan, for example, is far less committed to component modules than Renault, and that won't change with the new Almera that goes into production here next January.
But there is still much that Renault can learn from Nissan -and vice versa, said John Cushnaghan, managing director of Nissan Motor Manufacturing (UK).
Sunderland was judged Europe's most efficient car plant in the Economist Intelligence Unit's latest productivity rankings, making 98 cars per employee in 1997. Renault's plants finished far down the EIU list.
Renault benchmarked Sunderland two years ago, but will now do so much more rigorously.
'Their manufacturing people are coming here to talk about the Renault production way, the Nissan production way, and how we can rationalize those approaches and learn lessons from both sides,' Cushnaghan said.
Renault executive vice president Carlos Ghosn, who takes over as Nissan's number two this month, recently visited Sunderland. executive Cushnaghan said Ghosn liked what he saw.
'One of his first comments was: `I don't need to be briefed on where you are at the moment. Let's talk about how the plant established itself and achieved its current position.''
The Sunderland plant began building Nissan Bluebirds in 1987, and produced 288,838 Micras and Primeras last year with 4,250 employees. When the next Almera is launched, employment will increase to about 5,000 and annual capacity will rise from 310,000 to 350,000.
Nissan plans to bring the Almera up to full production in just six weeks. That compares with a 12-week ramp-up time for the Primera in 1996.
The Almera, to be built on the same line as Micra and Primera, is expected to improve Sunderland's productivity score, as measured by the EIU.
'It will give us a volume benefit and will improve our position by five to seven percent compared with this year,' Cushnaghan said. 'And this year we are five to seven percent better than last year.'
Cushnaghan said Renault can probably learn faster from Sunderland than from Nissan plants elsewhere in the world.
'The effects of the alliance and the synergies can be first realized here in Europe because that's where we both operate,' he said. 'It may be much slower in Japan and the USA, because Renault basically doesn't exist there.'
The partners are also pursuing a common parts-buying strategy, though Cushnaghan said the Almera has already been sourced and offers little short-term savings opportunity.
'Our purchasing groups are sitting together now in Paris to talk about the immediate synergies that are possible on the purchasing front,' he said.
Cushnaghan said the two sourcing strategies vary.
'We tend to source more in house than they do - things like fuel tanks and bumpers,' he said. 'The house style of Nissan globally is that we produce them in house. Renault tends to buy that sort of commodity.
'They are more modular in their approach to assembly, certainly in the new stream of products,' he said. 'Their body construction is slightly different to ours. They have managed to rationalize down the number of metal components in the body.
'Our whole body - the smallest stamping, the smallest bracket, the smallest fabrication - is created here on site, virtually in house,' he said. 'That's not true at most plants. So modularization is not as important to us.'
Despite the differences, Cushnaghan said the companies can learn from each other. To ease communications in Europe, the partners have set up a liaison office in Paris.
'We've put people from Japan and a few people from Europe in that office,' he said. 'We are creating an infrastructure by which we can create windows to each other.'