SUNDERLAND, England - With the addition of the lower-medium Almera hatchback earlier this year, Nissan's Sunderland plant will produce a record number of cars in 2000. And they will probably be built more efficiently than any other cars in Europe.
But raising production levels and cutting costs are not the only challenges facing Nissan Motor Manufacturing UK's Managing Director, John Cushnaghan. He has to export products from the Sunderland plant for sale on the European mainland, and with the current strength of the British pound, that's not easy to do profitably.
'The strength of the pound is damaging the car manufacturing base in this country,' he told Automotive News Europe. 'Costs in Europe will have to be reduced by more than 30 percent.'
Nissan, Toyota and Honda all located their European manufacturing headquarters in the UK in the 1980s. Now, with closure threatening the Rover plant in Longbridge, Birmingham, and the Ford plant in Dagenham, east London, UK-based manufacturers are facing increasing pressure from the strong pound.
Sunderland will make 330,000 units this year - a 22 percent increase over 1999, and very close to its maximum capacity.
Cushnaghan is fighting to get new production models for the UK plant. Sunderland managed to win the current Almera program, which resulted in the hiring of 800 extra workers. However, investment for the Almera at Sunderland has been limited to 215 million (A367.5 million) as part of Nissan's global cost-cutting plans following the link-up with Renault.
This was achieved through such measures as reducing the level of automation in the bodyshop to 60 percent, instead of 80 percent for the Primera or 85 percent for the Micra.
'We must maximize the use of space (in the bodyshop) because we have minimal capital investment,' said Rob Fenwick, general manager in charge of press and bodyshops.
Despite financial constraints, the launch of the Almera in January has gone smoothly. The ramp-up was achieved in a record six weeks. Since the plant has only two assembly lines, the production was split - with Micra and Almera made on one line, and Micra and Primera on the other. 'Micra was the easiest model to switch. It's also the quickest to build with a total time of nine hours,' explained Cushnaghan.
However, making three models is not simple: the bodyshop acts as a bottleneck. At the framing station, where roofs, side modules and floors are attached, the adjustments need to be altered regularly with a three-model production system. Despite this, the line which makes Almera and Micra delivers a complete body in 43 seconds - a record for any Nissan plant worldwide.
In the assembly shop, 56 Micras and Almeras are made per hour, giving a yearly output of 180,000 units. Nissan engineers have designed a number of ways to raise quality, reduce inventories and improve components handling.
For instance, 45 shuttles are fitted at different stations. The shuttle consists of a moving platform that travels along the assembly line for between 2 and 4 meters, then comes back automatically, carrying the worker.
Cushnaghan said Nissan could even add a fourth model at the plant. 'But at some point my hope is to reduce the number of platforms and increase volume,' he said.
The Almera platform will serve as the basis for the next Primera to be launched in 2002, said Cushnaghan.
He does not think that building Renaults in Sunderland will be the immediate solution. But the renewal of the Nissan product range will help.
'As Almera production grows, rationalization will increase and more location alternatives will develop,' he said.
A formal decision to make the Micra successor has not yet been made, although the English plant is a strong candidate.
Nissan's UK subsidiary has started to work with Renault on developing a common supplier base.
'The plans are in their infancy at the moment,' said Cushnaghan. 'Services came first, then raw materials, like steel, plastics, paint, will follow. It's more complex for components. I do not expect a significant reduction in the number of suppliers in Europe,' he added. NMUK currently uses 218 suppliers, two thirds of which are located in the UK.