Nissan had to make some costly adaptations to build the Infiniti Q30 and QX30 compact models at its factory in Sunderland, England.
The huge plant, which has a 500,000-unit annual capacity, is modern and flexible, but adding production of the Q30 hatchback and the upcoming QX30 crossover was a challenge.
For a start, the two Infiniti cars are the first premium models to be built at the plant, as well as the first Infinitis to be built in Europe. Secondly, the cars are based on Mercedes-Benz’s Modular Front Architecture, which underpins the German automaker’s compact range including the A-class hatchback and GLA crossover.
As Nissan found out, Mercedes builds cars slightly differently, requiring some expensive adaptations to the Sunderland assembly process. Nissan spent 250 million pounds ($380 million) upgrading the plant and tooling.
The Q30 and QX30 are built on the same line as the Nissan Juke crossover and Note minivan subcompact models, but Nissan inserts its dashboards 20 stations further down the line. So a new dashboard station was needed.
Much more expensively, the Mercedes platform requires that a car’s engine and rear axle are married to the body at the same time. Nissan doesn’t do this, even with all-wheel-drive versions of the Juke. So Nissan had to invest in a Wi-Fi controlled and highly adjustable new marriage system that caters for a range of wheelbase lengths.
Nissan added 32 stations to build the more complex Infiniti, extending line 2 by a kilometer (0.6 miles) at a cost of 16 million pounds. To avoid the Infiniti staff idling while Note and Juke cars go past, they are put to work on sub-assembly jobs until the next Q30 or QX30 arrives (roughly one in every four cars).
The Infiniti production upgrade included training the 4,000 staff who touch the cars during the production process. A new Infiniti bodyshop includes Sunderland’s first ever laser welding machine for the doors. This was needed because traditional spot-welds were not delicate enough to join the thinner door flanges, the result of the slimmer, more elegant door seals.
The upgrade also included new robots to give a more sophisticated surface finish in the paint shop. The Q30 brings aluminum in the plant for the first time (for the hood).
The investment to build Infiniti cars at the plant will have a wider benefit.
Nissan will now need to spend – about 1 million to 2 million pounds – to build the next-generation Juke in Sunderland starting in 2018. The Juke will be underpinned by Renault-Nissan’s new CMF-A platform.
Recent upgrades for plastic molding and a refit of the stamping facilities mean the factory is up-to-date, Nissan’s head of manufacturing for Europe, Colin Lawther, told me during a visit to the plant. “We have now got the machines that can keep up with the demands of modern stylists,” he said.