MOTORING / The new age comes to the factory floor: Beginning a two-part series on car manufacturing, Matthew Gwyther visits a plant of the future. Next week, he looks at craft production

IN 1950 Britain was the second largest producer of cars in the world after America. We sold three times as many vehicles to overseas markets as they did, and six times as many as the West Germans. At this time, the Japanese were still in the lay-by, up on bricks. Honda was just two years old.

Toyota, bedevilled by strikes and a demand slump which led to the firing of a quarter of its workforce, had made only 2,685 cars in its 13 years of automotive trading.

How things change. Toyota now makes 3.75 million cars a year and may soon displace Ford as the second biggest producer in the world after General Motors. Meanwhile, British firms have suffered something of a calamity in the last 45 years. Dozens of names such as MG, Austin and Morris have disappeared; Aston Martin and Jaguar have been sold to Ford. Earlier this year, our last volume producer, Rover, was bought by BMW from British Aerospace. This leaves Rolls- Royce and the tiny Blackpool-based TVR as the remaining UK-owned car makers of any note.

But let's not dwell on the downside. According to Professor Dan Jones of the Cardiff Business School, co-author of the influential book The Machine That Changed the World, Britain is back among the front runners - but with a difference. Of all the European countries, it has been quickest to embrace the Japanese notion of 'lean' production. With its tenets of economy and efficiency, this, says Professor Jones, represents the third age of car manufacture, after the first age - craft production; and the second - mass production as implemented by Henry Ford. In a typical third age manoeuvre, Nissan - with its factory in Sunderland - last year became the leading exporter of cars from Britain.

Honda is another example of the third age in action. It started production in Swindon in 1992, and now employs 1,750 people. Andrew Jones is the plant manager. He is a busy, terse man who, like many of those rewarded with jobs by Honda, had no previous experience of vehicle manufacture. The Japanese like employees' minds to be a tabula rasa. (He worked previously for mining companies and British Telecom.) Like everyone else, Jones wears the standard uniform of white overalls and a green baseball cap with the Honda logo. Like everyone else he has his first name embroidered on the jacket. He shares an office with other members of management and has no executive parking place. One of the first things one notices is how clean and neat the factory is. You could almost eat your breakfast off the floor. 'You can't produce a quality product in a shit heap,' snaps Jones as he goes striding down the aisle, nodding at staff as he goes.

What we are about to witness at Swindon is the birth of a brand new Honda Accord. The manufacturing process starts with molten aluminium; this is poured into die-casts to make the basic blocks for the engine. After the machining of the aluminium, assembly of the engine can begin. Meanwhile, the steel panels that will go to make up the body of the Accord are being pressed at another plant.

'At zero eight hundred on the 27th of March 1995,' Jones says, 'we will start pressing our own panels here, on site.' I admire the precision of the prediction. 'Since we started here,' he explains, 'we've had 50- odd projects costing more than a million pounds. Each one has had the precise hour, day, month and year that it will go into operation worked out way in advance.'

Making cars is a complex, difficult business. These are among the most awkward volume-manufactured products in the world. When Henry Ford said customers could have any colour they wanted as long as it was black, it was not because he liked funereal tones. It would be far easier to make cars if everybody was happy to have the same thing.

The fact is, they are not. Colour differences are the most visible example of tailoring to an individual customer's taste. Fridges are white and hi-fis are black - in the main - but Honda Accords come in seven different colours.

The company is particularly proud of its paint shop at Swindon. Most manufacturers send the body shell nose-first through the primers and 'surfacer' coats like a dolphin through water. At Honda, the cradle holding the car is dipped in sideways - a process that is far more awkward, but ensures much better paint penetration.

As you enter the humid atmosphere of the paint shop there is running water flowing under the walkway to take away specks of dust and dirt that may have been brought in on people's feet. After baking to seal the paint, the frame and engine are first wedded together.

Approximately 2,000 imported parts go into an Accord, and Honda uses 199 European component suppliers. Twenty years ago in a British car plant, large amounts of space would have been taken up storing parts ready for assembly into cars. According to 'lean' production principles, this is all wrong.

The jargon here at Swindon, when it comes to parts, is 'just in time'.

Michael McEnaney, a senior manager, explains: 'Rather than see the production process as happening simply 'on site', you extend the assembly process to your suppliers - so the flowing process starts with them.' This involvement of suppliers in the production process means that, on-site at Swindon, they hold no more than half a shift's worth of inventory. Precision timing is therefore needed as alloy wheels, for example, are brought in from Italy.

The 'just in time' philosophy can have its drawbacks. Production lines can sometimes be caught short, if vital parts do not arrive. On one occasion components had to be brought in by helicopter to keep the line moving. As the car advances down the line, more and more freshly produced items are added: seats, windscreens, air-conditioning units, cigarette lighters.

Another major tenet of lean production is that the process is worker-centred. Multi-skilled teams are encouraged to take an active role in finding the most efficient way to perform their tasks. (The staff themselves designed the tool that puts on the wheels, for example.) There are very few staff who are not directly involved in hands-on production.

Honda does not have employees but 'associates' - and if you mentioned the word 'foreman' at Swindon you would be looked at in horror. The starting wage for an associate here is pounds 12,500. No union is allowed at Honda, so all staff are on individual contracts. The company is cagey about remuneration for the next grade up - 'team leader' or 'lead associate' - because such individuals earn differing amounts.

There is no annual increment at Honda. For the past two years, associates have been awarded annual wage increases of 3.7 per cent. There is a benefits package which includes private healthcare, access to a cheap car-leasing package after three years' service, and three days' paternity leave. (Less than 10 per cent of the workforce are women, though some do work on the production line.) When employing staff, Andrew Jones is looking for 'open minds, flexibility and commitment'. Honda likes recruiting people young, and the average age is 28. There is no apprenticeship system. Two daily shifts run from 6am-2.20pm and from 3.30-11.45pm (Jones says it is 'impossible to produce a quality product on 24-hour working'), with two 10-minute tea breaks and a 30- minute lunch break each shift.

Associates work a 37-hour week. Though machines perform many of the tasks on the line, it is surprising so many humans are kept busy. 'The industry has pulled back on automation,' Professor Dan Jones explains. 'At Fiat they were great enthusiasts, but they went too far and found it was very expensive and didn't work. What is important in making cars is not machines, but ensuring a smooth flow of work. It's important that lean production does not depend on keeping machines busy.' Andrew Jones explains Honda's philosophy: 'We automate when the job is hot, dirty or unpleasant, not for its own sake.'

But aren't all jobs on the production line hot, dirty and unpleasant? Aren't they mind-numbingly repetitive? If making cars at British Leyland in the 1970s had been more enjoyable, perhaps the strike record would have been better. I spoke to Darren, a young man in his twenties working on the final stages of engine preparation. He had been at Swindon for four years and knew he had 110 seconds to perform eight functions on the engine as it passed him.

'Yes there is repetition and routine,' Andrew Jones admits, 'which is inevitable in mass production. But people get tremendous respect for doing it. They can't just switch off, because it is their concentration that creates the quality. They are not dead from the neck up.'

Professor Dan Jones agrees: 'It's not paradise, it's hard work - but at Honda they are generally happier than other car-workers because they are enthusiastic about changing their environment. They can sort out niggling problems. They have a degree of power, responsibility and knowledge and certainly do not leave their brains at home when they come to work each morning. They don't feel they're battling against a system that somebody else has designed.'

At Swindon, Honda makes 240 Accords per day and the annual production target is due to rise from 100,000 to 150,000 by the end of the decade. However, the daily target figure is of less importance than the 'RFT' figure - which stands for 'Right First Time'. This is the current buzz phrase of the industry, and the lean production enthusiast's mantra. The number refers to the percentage of cars that reach the end of the production process without faults, and are therefore ready to be delivered to customers. It may not matter to a customer whether the car was right first time or not, as long as it is right when it is finally driven off the dealer's forecourt. However, those cars that are not RFT have to be re-worked at considerable expense and waste of time.

The RFT target at Swindon is 90 per cent. 'There is anecdotal evidence from employees,' Professor Dan Jones says, 'that at Volkswagen they have to do extra work on 20 per cent and more of finished cars. This is a problem when you have a factory, as they do at VW, that is two miles long, employs 60,000 people and is so functionally organised that workers don't look for problems.'

A Channel 4 documentary, Car Wars, screened earlier this year, included an interview with a VW worker who claimed a mere 35 per cent of cars were right first time. In fact VW is not the only German manufacturer which has lagged behind in this area. Professor Jones continues: 'Certainly, when we visited Mercedes back in 1989 they were taking more hours to rectify models coming off the line than Toyota was taking to build a perfect Lexus in the first place.' Mercedes has made strenuous efforts to improve its production methods and has progressed considerably in the last five years.

The day I visited Honda at Swindon they were achieving an RFT figure of 97.7 per cent. It is interesting to compare this with a passage from The Car Makers, a book from 1964 which analysed the ills of the British car industry. The author, Graham Turner, asked a production line worker in an unnamed Coventry firm about inspection. 'Inspection?' he said. 'It's a farce. The inspector says it's not good enough. The gaffer comes along, they have a little natter and then they decide to let it go.'

When they have been completed and after they have gone through the 'monsoon' to check for water leaks, the final test for the Accords at Swindon is to drive the car up and down a runway outside the plant to check for squeaks and rattles. At this stage one becomes aware of a spicy irony. The site and the runway used to be owned by Vickers Supermarine. This Japanese product is being made on the same spot as that most successful piece of British transport engineering - the Spitfire.- (Photographs omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution