Nissan's Sunderland factory in the UK consolidated its position as the most productive car plant in Europe last year - despite an 11 percent overall improvement in manufacturing efficiency across the Continent.
The 4,141 Nissan employees at Sunderland, in northeast England, made an average of 105 cars each during 1998 - 18 more than the best car plant in the USA.
Sunderland was 28 percent more efficient than the joint second-place factories: Volkswagen's plant in Navarra, Spain, and General Motors' plant in Eisenach, Germany.
Fiat's plant in Melfi, Italy, took fourth position, while Toyota's Burnaston, England, factory moved from 11th place in 1997 to fifth place last year, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit's annual audit of car production across Europe. Burnaston makes the Avensis and the Corolla.
Nissan's success is largely based on a strategy of continuous improvement - although levels of automation in Sunderland are no higher than the industry average. The plant was managed by Ian Gibson before he took up the presidency of Nissan Europe earlier this year.
Sunderland's efficiency rating for 1999 is likely to be lower than 105 cars per employee because of retooling for the new Primera and next-generation Almera.
Nissan currently uses 208 suppliers at its UK plant. 'Around 80 percent of the finished vehicle comes from bought-in parts,' said a spokesman. 'Through the introduction of supplier development teams we set a course for continuous improvement that mirrored the plant's own achievements.'
The overall 11 percent increase in European productivity saw the average factory improve from 47 cars per employee in 1997 to 52 in 1998.
This was achieved through enhanced output with little change in headcount, automation improvements, increased modularization, and improved vehicle design which helps assembly - particularly the sharing of platforms across different ranges and brands.
Of the plants studied by the EIU, only GM at Eisenach and Rover at Longbridge, England, saw a deterioration in the number of cars built per employee last year. Eisenach - where the vehicles-per-employee figure fell marginally from 77 to 76 - is expected to improve during 1999 because full production of the new Astra will be established.
PSA's Mulhouse, France, and Vigo, Spain, facilities both improved thanks largely to operating above capacity: 345,641 against 338,650, and 339,000 against 292,500 respectively.
Volkswagen's Wolfsburg center and Seat's Martorell site near Barcelona produced the most cars. Martorell, in particular, continues to be one of the most efficient plants in Europe. It made 498,463 vehicles with a workforce of just 8,434 - compared with PSA at its ancient plant in Sochaux, France, for example, where only 237,002 cars were built by 19,197 workers.
In contrast to its profitability figures, profits at Nissan's UK manufacturing operations fell 70 percent in 1998 to £23 million (euro 34.9 million). Results were hit by the strength of the pound with more than two-thirds of the plant's output being exported.