After a months-long hiatus after the 2007/8 credit crunch clobbered its European sales, Honda restarted the Swindon plant in 2009 with just the one final line, still operating today

After a months-long hiatus after the 2007/8 credit crunch clobbered its European sales, Honda restarted the Swindon plant in 2009 with just the one final line, still operating today

There was a palplable air of excitement throughout just-auto's brief tour of Honda Motor Europe's Swindon vehicle factory here in England. Newly named a global hub for the next generation five-door Civic hatchback line at a rate of 120,000 a year (the Canadian plant in Alliston, Ontario will take over next generation CR-V production for Europe and the imminent redesigned Jazz will come from Japan), the sprawling complex has been through rough times in recent years, culminating in several months of complete closure and the indefinite mothballing of its second assembly line (in its own building) following the 2007-2008 credit crunch sales slump which hit the Honda and Toyota plants here in England particularly hard. (The Japanese rival, too, mothballed a second final line which has yet to reopen.)

Swindon workers are also proud they, as our tour leader put it, "earned the right to build the [upcoming, uber-sporty] Type R Civic" that will be launched some months hence. "The associates wanted it here," we were told.

These days, a new plant in a new market might kick off with simple, semi knocked down, final assembly (like MG does at what's left of the old MG Rover plant - which once also made Hondas - up in Birmingham). Painted and trimmed bodies are shipped from an established plant in one box, mechanicals in another, join the two, add some locally sourced tyres, battery and the odd fastener and, finished! Get that right, and next comes completely knocked down bodies for welding, paint and trim, to be blended with a mix of local and imported interior, powertrain and suspension parts, and, finally, comes local full interior, electrics, powertrain and running gear manufacture resulting, in most Japanese automakers' usual case abroad, about 95% local content.

So, this far down the line, Swindon in 2015 is pretty much soup to nuts. Panels are pressed, alloy engine blocks and heads are cast and machined, bodies are welded, painted and trimmed, final assembly is carried out with mucho local content; lots of it, if delivery pallets are any guide, sourced right here in Olde England. We saw a lot of what's done there during our tour bar the paint shop - which no mere mortal can enter these days unless wrapped in impurity prevention kit from head to foot - and plastic moulding of items like bumpers which must also be painted.

PDI Centre to start

Honda initially (1985) built its Swindon facility as a pre delivery centre (opened 1986) for cars both imported from Japan and built up in Longbridge (south of Birmingham) under the partnership with what was most recently known as MG Rover. First UK built Honda car in 1979 was the Ballade (Civic sedan variant)-based Triumph Acclaim - built only as that - but, when the second generation sedans - now called Rover 214/216 - arrived for 1984, the British partner's Longbridge plant also turned out an equivalent Ballade sedan for Honda Europe. Next, for 1987, came the Rover 800 series (aka the Honda Legend with different interior and exterior design but shared platform and mechancials) with Longbridge making both for Europe while a Japanese factory returned the favour for other markets.

To supply Longbridge with its own jewel-like engines, Honda in 1989 added an engine factory on the Swindon site and, after the Thatcher government sold the British automaker to aerospace maker BAE while apparently not giving first refusal to Honda, the reportedly much-offended Japanese automaker was forced eventually to go it alone in the UK and Europe, building a car assembly plant on the Swindon site which, in 1992, started Accord production (while Rover did the jointly developed 600 equivalent separately at Cowley) and, as joint development and component sharing were gradually wound down over the years, added Honda-only models like the Accord, Civic, Jazz and CR-V. Diesel engine production - a party Honda was notably late to - started in 2005 and all production was consolidated into one plant in 2014.

No management barriers

The 250,000-unit capacity assembly plant built 114,000 vehicles last year and employs 3,200 people or, in Honda-speak, 'associates'. The Japanese automakers long ago broke down most of the 'them and us' management v workers barriers by making everyone wear the same practical uniform, jostle for the same car park spaces closest to the entrance gates on a rainy day and eat the same food in the same cafeteria in the same allotted timeframe. The boss' office is one corner of a big room in which the rest of the administrative staff toil. "The only difference is I get paid more," quipped the top (Welsh) manager, modestly failing to mention he probably stays on later and shoulders far more overall responsibility for keeping the workforce employed than the average man or woman on the final line.

Honda of the UK Manufacturing (aka HUM) claims to operate on the principles established by Honda Motor founder and engine designer extraordinaire Sochiro Honda of respect for the individual and the encouragement of individual ideas. Among the mantras drummed into staff are "be ever mindful of the value of research" and "strive constantly for a harmonious workflow".

Compared with some multi-model, uber-flexible plants I have seen, Swindon gives the initial appearance of batch build, a little like the CKD plants in New Zealand I cut my auto reporting teeth on in a previous life, where one cluster of, say, 24 cars would go down the line at a time with few differences each bar paint and trim colour and the odd automatic transmission option. When we visited, Honda seemed to be building only the last of the 'old model' Jazz and they looked to be all left hand drive for Europe with few specification differences. Honda's answer actually makes sense and pitches a logic I'd not heard before: "We batch (left- or right-hand drive) not spec." This saves line workers from constantly swapping sides to install items like dashboards or steering wheels. Closer inspection later down the trim line revealed different trim, equipment and road wheel variations but all steering wheels were on the left during our tour.

The plant presses most of its body panels (we saw a number of contracted-out small pressings lineside) and casts its own alloy engine blocks with two, high pressure, 2,000-tonne presses working in tandem. As they're working with always-molten metal, this is the one part of Swindon that works 24/7. In the low pressure head casting processes, the metal is only partly molten and there is heat treatment after casting. Like most factories these days, the plant recycles all it can: casting sand - turned black in the process of becoming a mould and which cannot be reused - is sold to a local council for use in road repairs.

Engines are assembled on two lines - a smaller one for the diesels which Honda does so well you wonder why it waited so long - and the automaker now so much trusts its British workers and manufacturing processes the engines are not tested until someone turns the key at the end of the vehicle assembly line. Of course, production engines are routinely yanked from the line for a variety of tests including max revs dyno testing and a full tear-down (one in 1,000) but routine production units aren't started for the first time till they're in their designated cars. That's confidence.

As I mentioned, the paint shop is out of bounds to all bar the custom clad, but the key idea is four coats - electrocoat, primer, colour and clear coat. The paint process takes seven hours.

Final line

On the final line which, of course, looks like any assembly line (cars roll past, a mix of people and robots install bits), HUM generally trains workers do any of four specific tasks per assembly station and tasks are added as people progress around the plant. Groups of 15 assembly workers are headed by a team leader. Join Honda UK anywhere to do anything and you'll spend four weeks on the Swindon line, doing a variety of tasks, so you soon get to know the company's products and how they are made.

Takt time per assembly station is 85 seconds (ages vary on the line but all workers look slim and fit as this pace likely keeps them so) and, for the driveline and engine stuff-up stages, bodies travel sideways (something I've seen in the early trim stage at BMW Leipzig and also done decades ago in US Ford Mustang and Australian Chrysler Valiant plants). Trim is installed with doors off and windscreens are installed by robots with multi-point laser vision.

Keep your eyes open around Swindon and you'll see stillages clearly marked 'KD' full of various bits - these are destined for Honda's Turkish plant which sources some parts from the UK and many of its own to assemble Civic sedans for the local market. British parts include blocks and heads for local engine assembly while complete engines also go to Mexico for HR-V SUVs made there along with the redesigned 2015 Jazz the UK and Europe will soon get from Japan.

The future

Looking ahead, the upcoming Civic Type R hatchback will require some new processes as it has aluminium front wings [fenders], not sourced in-Honda-house requiring some 18 metres of adhesive to install. Adding the new variant (the plant has just added a new cosmetics-only Sport five door hatchback to its current Civic line as well) requires 40-50 specification changes but experienced associates have taken all that on board and a smooth production launch is expected.

Removing the CR-V (in about two years) and Jazz (imminent) at the end of their model life runs will take away some complexity but the change to a one model plant nonetheless adds lots of new processes. As to re-opening the mothballed plant, Swindon managers expect the current plant will cope easily with the projected 120,000 units a year forecast initially - a boost in sales would trigger shift pattern changes in plant one long before the second is reopened.

"The Civic contract takes HUM into a new market with greater stability," we were told, and the fact that C-segment hatchback demand is rising in the US is also seen as a positive development.

Parts are purchased in a variety of regions and the upcoming five-door hatchback has parts commonality with the four-door sedan models that dominate North American sales. This commonality allows economies of scale.

At the end of the day, though, HUM is people-focused. "We believe our strength is in our associates rather than robots," a top manager said. Now, the direction is to "satisfy" the North American market. "We're looking at quality improvements to demonstrate what the UK can do."