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