The OEM's highly utilised plant in the UK has incorporated the premium Infiniti Q30 into its existing line-up

Infiniti Q30, Nissan Sunderland

As a seal of approval goes for a hardworking factory, it doesn’t get much more convincing than this: the allocation of a premium model. That was the accolade won by Nissan’s Sunderland, UK, plant in 2012 when the Renault-Nissan Alliance announced that it would build a compact car for the company’s premium brand, Infiniti. Now, after a £250m ($359.1m) investment in the site, including a new bodyshop and an assembly-line extension, the first Q30s hatchbacks are heading off to Europe, the US and China. A beefed-up version, styled more as a crossover and badged QX30, will follow early in 2016, allowing Infiniti to compete in a whole new sector and, it hopes, to sell enough cars per year to fill the factory’s 60,000-unit capacity for the two models.

Nissan Sunderland is a phenomenon. From a slow start after its inception in 1986, the plant now regularly builds half a million cars a year and is responsible for one in every three cars made in the UK. Its 6,700 employees produce 115 cars an hour, 24 hours a day, making it one of the most productive factories in Europe. It builds the Juke B-SUV, Note B-MPV, Leaf electric car and – the real star – the Qashqai C-SUV. The second generation of this car became the fastest-selling UK-built car, shifting half a million units in 19 months from the start of production in January 2014.

Adding to this success, Sunderland has now gained a premium vehicle. “The Q30 is a huge feather in Sunderland’s cap – the plant has had a tough upbringing and fought hard for every car because of the general overcapacity in Europe,” Trevor Mann, Nissan's chief performance officer, told AMS on its site visit in December.

“Ten years ago… we wouldn’t be capable of building this car [the Q30]. We’ve now got the machines that can keep up with the demands of modern stylists” – Colin Lawther, Nissan

However, bringing the Infiniti Q30 into this hive of productivity created problems. For one thing, Sunderland had to be judged fit to join plants in the US, Japan and China which are also building Infinitis. Back in 2013 it certainly wasn’t, even as the ground was being broken for the new facilities. As Colin Lawther, Nissan’s head of Manufacturing, Supply Chain and Purchasing for Europe (see below), explained, the plant needed to score 4.5 or more out of five on the Infiniti Production Evaluation System (IPES). It was rated just 3.5.

The second big problem was that the Infiniti was not going to be built on a Renault-Nissan platform. Instead, it would use the Mercedes MFA (Modular Front Architecture) which underpins the A-Class range, and specifically the GLA compact SUV, and this quickly exposed differences in the way Nissan and Mercedes build cars. Lawther talked about the different methods of seam sealing which required new robots in the paintshop, but other big changes came in assembly.

Q30/QX30 firsts for Nissan Sunderland
  • The model has an aluminium bonnet, the first time the metal has featured on cars at this plant. It also uses ultra-high tensile steel for some of the safety elements of the body
  • The thinner door seals and therefore the thinner flanges they fit on required a new approach to welding, so Sunderland bought a £250,000 ($359,100) laser welding machine for the doors
  • The Infiniti bodyshop is 100% automated, with just ten people working in each of the two shifts
  • The sharp creases of the body panels require five press dies per panel, as opposed to four for Nissans. Panels are either made in Nissan’s press shop, locally by suppliers Gestamp and Unipress (which required half of the £250m investment for dies and so on), or shipped in from Daimler, which supplies the engine compartment, sills and rear floor
Integrating the Q30, Juke and NoteIn a bold move, it was decided that the Infiniti Q30 would be assembled on the same line as the comparatively lowly Nissan Juke and Nissan Note, which are put together in a slightly different order. For example, the dashboard (supplied as a whole by Calsonic Kansei) for the Infiniti Q30 has to be inserted 20 stations earlier than Nissan usually does it, thus needing another dashboard station.

Assembly hall, Nissan Sunderland

Assembly Line 2 has been extended by 1km for the Q30

Further down the assembly line, at the stuff-up sector, the Mercedes platform requires the engine, exhaust and rear axle all to be married together. Therefore, a whole new marriage system had to be included in the £16m extension of Line 2 (the Qashqai and Leaf are built on Line 1), adding another kilometre to the line.

This gave Nissan the chance to add a much more flexible, Wi-Fi-controlled marriage system whereby the cars are moved along the line on trucks with adjustable bellow lifts fore and aft, enabling the insertion of the engine and rear axle for cars of any wheelbase length. This represents one more step in the plant’s progress towards becoming completely flexible in the cars it builds.

The technology-rich Q30 is a very different vehicle from the two super-mini-sized cars running along the same line, and this complexity has added 32 stations just for the Infiniti. Given that the Infinitis come down the line at a ratio of 1:4, this could potentially leave the Infiniti staff waiting for their work. Sunderland has got around this by having them perform sub-assembly jobs in the idle moments when Jukes and Notes are coming past.

The assembly hall is a very calm environment. The drive for greater serenity has eliminated a lot of the beeps and sirens heard in a conventional facility; for example, if there is a problem, the line worker pages his team leader rather than sounding an alarm. You could almost say there is a premium level of quietness – perfect for concentrating on a car that Nissan admits is far more complicated than it has worked on before.

Training to meet Infiniti requirementsThere are signs around Line 2 which carry the Infiniti logo and declare that “Premium vehicle manufacturing starts with you”. It is drilled into the 4,000 staff who come into contact with the Infiniti Q30 that just a minute of their time impacts on eight years of customer ownership. This is a big deal. Those who are new to the line wear red hats for the first one to two months and their work on the Q30 is closely monitored during this period. Workers in green hats assess the quality under a Japanese system known as shoki ryudo.

Newcomers are given a two-hour awareness course, while those working in final inspection receive a full day of training on the expectations of premium customers. The pinnacle of the system is in-depth training which has created 66 ‘takumi meisters’, an amalgam of Japanese and German words which translates as ‘master craftsmen’. Infiniti Sunderland describes these individuals as “key to producing premium vehicles”.

Lawther is quick to emphasise that work carried out on the Q30 isn’t necessarily better than that on the Nissan Juke or Note: “The quality difference is a matter of expectation and specification, so one car is not better than the other, but it's built to a higher engineering technical specification.”

Stepping up to the challenge of the Q30

Colin Lawther, Nissan’s head of Manufacturing, Supply Chain and Purchasing for Europe, discusses the difficulties of incorporating a premium car into a maximum-capacity plant

AMS: Where have you made the biggest improvements to Nissan Sunderland in order to build the Q30?Colin Lawther (CL): About two years ago, we started implementing the IPES – Infiniti Production Evaluation System – a scoring system based on ten major criteria, including quality of environment, facility preparation [and] reliability. The magic number is 4.5 out of five. If you achieve that, then you have an accreditation to be an Infiniti plant. In February this year [2015] we went over the threshold.

AMS: What were the changes which led to accreditation?CL: One of the maxims of Infiniti is clean and silent production, so we’ve reduced noise and we've changed the lighting from standard tungsten to LEDs, so it's very bright. The silence allows workers to hear what they are doing, hear the clips clicking home, see more clearly and takes stress out of the environment. It’s not only more pleasant, it actually helps us with build quality. The second is training; we've trained more than 4,000 people in the requirements for Infiniti. And the third is to become closer to customers and dealers. We’re in the process of setting up a real-time video link [with] dealerships so customers can ask questions to experts in the factory.

Colin Lawther Colin Lawther, Nissan

AMS: Will the rest of the plant benefit?CL: Yes, we’ve taken that into Production Line 1, so Qashqai and Leaf are getting the benefit. We’ve trained the 4,000 [people] that will directly touch Infiniti but gradually we’ll expand that to all 6,700 employees. It’s also starting to cascade back to our plant in Barcelona [Spain]. We’re starting to ramp up production now of the Navara pick-up there, and when we start building the pick-up truck for Daimler, they’ll see this seamless quality change, so Barcelona will be Infiniti level. Then we’ll carry it forward to the St Petersburg plant [Russia].AMS: You’re taking a Daimler platform for the Q30. What differences have you discovered while integrating it into Sunderland?CL: There are technical differences. When you’re joining body panels with spot welding, you need to seal the edge for noise and water ingress. Nissan seals from the inside, Infiniti is sealed from the underside. It’s very difficult to do that ergonomically, so we put in eight robots to do that.

AMS: Where did the £250m [$359.1m] investment for the Q30/QX30 go?CL: The plant received almost half of that, [the] rest of that was vendor tooling. We invested more in the plant than we normally do because we had to introduce new processes. One was a brand-new, 10,000 sq.m bodyshop with 134 robots.

AMS: What new technologies or processes did you introduce into the bodyshop?CL: We are introducing spatter-free technology, so eventually no sparks will come off the welding. That sparking is a sign of inefficiency – spatter is high-temperature, molten metal that sticks on jigs and fixtures – so that’s important for quality control as well. No sparks, and the welding will use 30% less energy.

AMS: How is the body-in-white more ‘premium’ than, say, a Qashqai?CL: There are 40% more spot welds than [a] typical Nissan structure, and also 250 linear metres of structural adhesive. On a typical Nissan, that'll be five to ten metres. It gives a very strong seamed joint for the stiffness needed to deliver a premium feel on the road. There’s very little consideration about cost; it’s about delivering product specification.

AMS: Where else have you invested?CL: In the paintshop; as well as the new underbody sealing robots, we have additional robots in topcoat painting to give a very flat shiny surface, and in trim and chassis we've built a 15,000 sq.m extension [of] 34 stations – the line is almost 1km long.

AMS: In the Q30 and QX30, you’ve essentially got two cars from one shell. Were there difficulties in differentiating the two cars?CL: The body is essentially the same, but we can differentiate the cars from a cosmetic point from plastic parts. We’ve got three body styles [including two for the Q30], but we've got eight combinations of injection-moulding tools for bumpers. Our smallest moulding machine, with a 2,300-ton clamp load, isn’t big enough to make the Q30 bumpers. We need the 3,200-ton and 2,700-ton machines. Ten years ago we didn’t have these and we wouldn’t be capable of building this car. We’ve now got the machines that can keep up with the demands of modern stylists.

Infiniti bodyshop, Nissan Sunderland The new Infiniti bodyshop is fully automated

AMS: Sunderland’s next car is the Nissan Juke, the first to be built on the new, small CMF-B Nissan-Renault platform. What changes are needed to accept that new platform in 2018? CL: The plant is pretty flexible actually, on both lines, so there's no major investment coming into the plant for the Juke platform. It’ll be going into Line 2 but it could be going down Line 1 if we wanted to. It's CMF-capable on both lines. We won’t spend more than one or two million pounds.AMS: Is production for the Qashqai in St Petersburg [Russia] still on course?CL: We are in the third week of ramp-up [and have] built around 600 cars [at the beginning of December] and it goes on sale on December 9.

AMS: How many shifts are you working?CL: In February, we’re moving from two shifts to one. We're having to downsize the plant on a temporary basis until the Russian economy picks up. It's not a happy story for us; we'll make about 40,000 a year out of a capacity of 100,000.

AMS: What are the trends in factory design and car construction in the medium term?CL: From our point of view, it's clean, silent and [involves] 100% kitting to lineside, which means the operators don't have a choice of parts, but parts are presented in a very ergonomic manner. We’re also moving to electric, high-capability tooling instead of pneumatic tooling. So it's a nicer place to work, with less stress on operators. We’re using common modular platforms for the cars to optimise the scale of supply chain and allow us to standardise production processes. That’ll take stress out of operators, allowing them to spend more time enjoying their job and focus on quality.