WITH yoichiro ueno, president & ceo, honda cars India, FIRMLY BEHIND THE WHEEL, THE COMPANY IS NARROWING THE GAP with COMPETITION.
by Jayashree Kini-Mendes
The automotive business, especially passenger vehicles, is perhaps the only industry that is always scrambling to reinvent. No other industry sees a constant gush of launches, re-launches, not to mention the heroic act of phasing out old and recently launched models with such alarming alacrity. It would have put any other industry sector in a tizzy. But the nuances of the auto industry are different. If you are a car-maker in any part of the world, you must have in your portfolio a range of models positioned for different kinds of buyers. More importantly, the R&D teams of auto companies are so vibrant that every so often they stumble upon an innovation or technology, a new model is born.
Buyers, on their part, are not too complacent either. The story is that India is a price-sensitive and discerning market (most have stopped believing the former now — at least in urban India), and though gradually globalising, a buyer will consider the car-makers’ abilities to fashion cars to match the family’s eclectic tastes.
Over the last few years, car manufacturers seemed to have gathered a sense of humility and every new car to have emerged seem to be catering to the mass market. So while they will have models for the elite buyers, going by the spate of recent launches, most of them are usually a cheaper and scaled down version for the hoi polloi.
In such a situation comes Yoichiro Ueno who is keen that buyers continue to retain expectations from Honda Cars India about its premium image. Citing the example of the new Honda City, he says that when the company decided to add an expensive variant with a host of features, a majority of the bookings were for the top-end version. It only strengthened his faith in the Indian buyer.
The president & CEO of Honda Cars India (HCIL) is aware that while the brand continues to command a premium, its competition too is catching up. It changed its stance. Involving a larger pool of local R&D to design and build a car that would give it the much needed traction in Tier 2 and 3 cities, where HCIL has not seen the numbers it fancies, helped. The recently launched WR-V was an outcome of this effort.
The company has been notching up new records in gaining customer confidence. In June this year, HCIL reported that its domestic sales grew by 12.2%. Ueno says that the company’s achievements was partly due to its decision to offer a price protection in June to those customers who purchased cars before the GST rollout so as to counter the sales challenge during this period.
Advanced use of technology and a first-mover advantage in rolling out innovative models has also played a critical role in gaining mindshare among customers. It’s not only the design and R&D team that has played to the gallery, but much can also be attributed to its nimble and immaculate manufacturing facilities.
THE HUNCH PAID OFF
The Indian psyche has always associated Japanese goods as innovative and avante garde. Since 1998, when HCIL started production at its first plant in Greater Noida, the company has conscientiously and meticulously ordered its vehicles to meet the Japanese benchmark. The Tapukara plant in Alwar, Rajasthan, stands testimony to this.
The first thing that strikes you at the plant is that every raw material is measured in thousands of tonnes and lakhs of units per annum. Vast troughs carrying components of every size and shape are neatly maintained along the assembly lines. Considering that the Tapukara plant has a capacity of 120,000 units per annum, which translates to 490 cars per day, it is natural that every action will work with clockwork precision. Incidentally, at this plant, HCIL manufactures the City, BR-V, WR-V, and the Jazz. The other models are made at its Greater Noida plant.
Spread over an area of 610 acres (HCIL alone sits on 400 acres), the facility is an integrated manufacturing unit including all functions of forging, press shop, powertrain shop, weld shop, paint shop, plastic moulding, engine assembly, frame assembly and engine testing facility. This plant is the culmination of manufacturing know-how and practices gathered from Honda’s global operations. It employs optimum automation and state-of-the-art equipment for achieving quality, operational efficiency and safety.
Running three lines each at the forging, crankshaft and connecting rods plants for the powertrain alone, HCIL has deployed robots and pneumatics at the state-of-the-art forging plant having a press of 4,500 tonnes and an installed capacity of 11 lakh crankshafts per annum to cater to Honda’s global requirements. The forging press machine has a cycle time of 9 seconds to make one part. Quality checks of each crankshaft is conducted and after it has been barcoded, the parts then move to the assembly area. HCIL also exports unmachined 1,000 crankshafts. The connecting rods (conrods) have a similar setup with three machining lines and 1,000 car sets per day.
In terms of engines, the Tapukara plant has a production capacity of 1.8 lakh engines per annum and makes the 1.2L and 1.5L petrol as well as the 1.5L diesel motor that powers its City, Amaze and Jazz models, among others. The engine assembly rolls out 450 engines daily, although it has a capacity of 670 engines. This will soon accommodate the new crop of 1.6L diesels.
The manufacturing process begins with the casting shop. HCIL does high pressure die casting, low pressure and spin casting using aluminium ingots. The casting is for the transmission case, clutch case and cylinder blocks, which are then sent to the engine assembly. HCIL produces transmission of 34 different models. Ferrous casting is adopted for preparing cylinder blocks, which are also exported to Honda Cars UK and Honda Cars Indonesia. Similarly, the press department which occupies 15,576m2 has two lines with a total capacity of 390,000 parts per annum. Huge machines of 1,000 tonnes and 1,500 tonnes dot the press department. Parts like fenders, tailgate frame, front door panel, hood skin, rear door panel, rear door and front door skin, floors, etc are made here. The parts are then sent for painting before they find their place at the assembly line. In order to ease work at the assembly line, HCIL maintains the parts accordingly. For instance, the parts meant for the left of the car are aligned on the left side and those of the right on the right side.
At a time when most its competitors prefer to assemble different models at one time, HCIL relies on batch production. The batches are based on the orders clocked from various dealers across the country.
BRING TO THE FRONT
HCIL prefers that most of the processes are handled by manual labour. In terms of fittings, most is done through spot welding (robotic) or mig welding (manual). There is a conscientious effort to refrain from mig welding as the company understands its harmful effects on the environment.
The car manufacturer has bifurcated the manufacturing process into four zones. At the A zone, the handling robot attends to the floor of the car that has been placed on a trolley, after which it is fed into the automation line, thus taking it next to the B Zone. It is here that one of the most critical area of car building happens, which is the general welding station. This is where the main geometry of the car is fixed by 12 robots. Two handling robots (front and back) and 10 spot welding robots fix the side panels. The panels are fed by the help of a conveyer, so as to avoid deformations, while a fork lift is used for fitting in the other parts. The D zone utilises the roller hemming process where a standard industrial robot integrated with a roller hemming head provides a flexible solution. The flange of the outer panel is bent over the inner panel in progressive steps by means of the roller hemming head. The process allows the advantage of using the robot controlled hemming head to hem several different components in a single cell. Workers then manually verify the accuracy of the fittings before pushing the trolley to the C zone for the fitment of the body. When the nearly-ready car moves to the final assembly, HCIL relies on manual assembly of the wiring and interiors. Constant checking after every stage of assembly is integral to the company’s philosophy. The final test is when drivers test the final assembled car for speed, its lights, brakes, etc.
The end-to-end process of putting together an entire care is completed in just 4.5 hours!
BELIEF IN ONESELF
Speaking about the Tapukara facility, Ueno says, “This plant started operations in 2008 initially making body panels and engine parts. It was only in 2014 that it started to assemble cars and has cumulatively rolled out 3.2 lakhs since then. The plant has a current production capacity of 1.2 lakhs unit per annum but is designed to expand to 1.8 lakh per annum without any additional investment.”
With a total investment of Rs 5,440 crore, the components made at the Tapukara plant are exported to 15 countries including the USA, Canada, South America, Japan, China, and South East Asian countries. Last fiscal, the company exports reached Rs 1,140 crore.
As a philosophy-driven company, HCIL believes that the two pillars are respect for the individual and the three joys. Honda believes that each individual is unique, independent and possesses his own ideas. Associates are encouraged to take initiatives and responsibility of their actions. Navid Talib, operating head, new model development & quality functions, HCIL, says, “At Honda, we believe in creating three joys. First is the joy of buying. Every customer who buys a Honda product must enjoy its high quality and performance with the after-sales services exceeding his or her expectations. The next joy is that of selling. Our dealers can experience joy only when the product they sell contribute to the happiness of the buyer and is superior in terms of quality and value to a competing product. The third joy is the joy of creating. This comes from the realisation that associates at Honda have created or manufactured superior products and contributed to the creation of a better society and happiness and safety for all.”
Globally, Honda employs 2.1 lakh associates and over 28 million new customers chose Honda last year. The company has global presence with 137 plants in 41 countries.
SAFE INSIDE A HONDA
Cars are as much about looks and experience, as it is about safety. HCIL takes safety a notch higher. There is a strong attempt to reduce accidents and in turn improve the safety of pedestrians and other vehicles. Honda has helped develop an advanced safety visualisation technology called Real Impact. This technology creates highly detailed three-dimensional models of a vehicle’s crash safety structure and allows Honda engineers and designers to better visualise how these systems work in a variety of collision scenarios. Engineers are able to manipulate the 3D rendering, rotate the view in any direction and strip away parts of the vehicle to isolate a section or component for more thorough analysis. The crash barrier can also be rendered transparent in the virtual environment so the immediate effects of a crash can be viewed from multiple points of view, including from the driver’s seat.
There are two main types of safety systems: active and passive. Active safety technologies, like those in the Honda Sensing suite of safety and driver assistive technologies, working while driving. This includes the automatic emergency braking (a component of CMBS) and other technologies that help mitigate the potential for a collision or its severity.
Then, there are “passive safety” systems. These are the systems that you hope you never need. But they’re critical to safety in the event of a collision. One of most innovative Honda passive safety systems is the Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) body structure. This is a Honda-exclusive body design that uses a network of front frame structures to absorb and deflect the energy from a frontal collision. It helps reduce the force transferred to the cabin and more evenly disperse the forces transferred to other vehicles involved.
Honda operates two of the world’s most sophisticated crash safety research and testing facilities, in Ohio and Japan. This includes the world’s first multi-directional crash test facility at its R&D centre in Japan. Not all collisions in the real world are head on, so Honda didn’t want to test only head-on collisions, but many types of crash scenarios including: car-to-car impacts, car-to-barrier collisions, front, side and rear impacts and offset and oblique-angle collisions.
Such moves can only stress Ueno’s words of retaining Honda’s image of a premium car.