Nissan has been named the most productive vehicle manufacturer in North America in the Harbour Report North America 2006, the annual study from Harbour Consulting.

Each of the Big Three North American manufacturers was named in different respects for high achievement in manufacturing excellence. Harbour Consulting said that DaimlerChrysler has improved the most over last year, and that GM had five of the ten most productive Harbour Consulting assembly plants in North America, while Ford Atlanta was the best single assembly plant.

The report's authors point out that all manufacturers have been improving and that the gap between the manufacturers is narrowing as all drive to improve quality and maximize returns on their investments. The difference between the most and least productive in terms of total (Assembly, Stamping and Powertrain) labour hours was 7.33 hours per vehicle (HPV)  in 2005, down from 9.08 in 2004 and less than half the 16.56 HPV gap in 1998. The labor hours per vehicle measure calculates the total salary and hourly labor content required to produce one vehicle.

Nissan Motor Co. led the industry, at 28.46 hours per vehicle, across assembly, stamping and powertrain, followed by Toyota Motor Corp. at 29.40 and Honda at 32.51 HPV. But General Motors was close behind at 33.19, followed by Chrysler Group at 33.71 and Ford Motor Co. at 35.82 HPV.

Among assembly plants, Ford's Atlanta set the benchmark for labor productivity with a measure of 15.37 hours per vehicle, followed closely by General Motors' Oshawa, Ont number 2 line that produces the Pontiac Grand Prix, Buick Lacrosse and Buick Allure mid-size sedans. Ford will close the Atlanta plant, which produces the Taurus, in 2008 as part of its restructuring.

"Nissan's performance reflects the hard work at Canton and Smyrna to improve processes and quality after two years of launching more than a half dozen new vehicles," Harbour said.

Harbour noted that while the six major manufacturers are closer than ever on labour productivity, there remains a substantial gap among them on capacity utilisation. Toyota, Nissan and DaimlerChrysler produced at between 94% and 106% of their North American capacity. Honda and General Motors operated at 91% and 90%, respectively, while Ford's assembly plants ran at 79% of their potential output.

Capacity utilisation is also an important measure of a manufacturer's flexibility. When assembly plants can produce multiple models, even from multiple platforms, a company is much more likely to fully use its human capital and equipment.

By closing plants in the next two years, Ford and General Motors should see improvement on capacity utilisation. Others, such as Toyota, which had its assembly plants running between 97% and 109% of capacity, are integrating their design, engineering and manufacturing organizations to increase flexibility and the use of common parts and processes.

The other differentiator is profitability. Nissan, Toyota and Honda each earned a pre-tax margin of more than US$1,200 on every vehicle they sold in North America. Chrysler Group earned $223, while Ford lost $590 and General Motors, $2,496, on each vehicle sold in 2005.
This reflects a variety of factors, including the large difference in health care and pension costs, as well as higher costs of rebates and low- interest rate financing required to trim inventories.