Meet Honda’s Lincoln, Alabama, plant, where its popular SUVs and trucks are born.
American manufacturing has been a hot political issue; a robust manufacturing industry means jobs, income, tax revenue and can be the engine of our economy. Modern manufacturing no longer means the blue collar jobs of the Rust Belt’s heyday. Factories today are filled with robots, computers and the highly skilled men and women who work alongside them.
Get into a new car and you’ll see the result of this complex process: Tens of thousands of parts, thoughtful designs, quality materials, increasingly better performance and efficiency, all the result of research, ingenuity and innovation. All this to get you to the grocery store to buy milk.
But how does this all come together?
When I realized that we’d be passing by the Honda assembly plant in Lincoln, Alabama, on our summer road trip, I asked for a tour so I could see for myself. It turned out to be a surprising highlight of our trip; even my teen daughter was wowed.
The Mini-City Where 2 Million Cars and Trucks Were Born
Consider these stats about the Honda’s Alabama assembly plant:
- 1,350 acres
- 3.7 million square feet
- 4,500 employees
- 38 outside suppliers
- 1,500 trucks and SUVs built each day,
In 2010 the Alabama plant turned out its 2 millionth vehicle, and it continues to produce 350,000 vehicles a year.
This mini-city is continually being upgraded to adapt innovation, from ideas that are born on site to those that are hatched at other Honda plants and offices.
The plant was humming with activity the day we visited, and we weren’t the only visitors. A group of college students from Georgia Tech were there, too. Anyone can visit and see what goes into the assembly the Honda Odyssey, Pilot, Ridgeline and Acura MDX.
What Goes into an Assembly Plant?
Manufacturing plants have been portrayed in movies like An Officer and a Gentleman, Norma Rae or maybe even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Don’t expect anything like that in Alabama.
The plant’s 3.7 million square feet are housed in two enormous buildings, several “smaller” buildings and several out buildings, all climate controlled and designed for safety and efficiency. The main assembly line is something like an amusement park ride for the cars being built, a 1.25 mile rail system that shuttles each car along the journey so parts can be installed on its frame, some by team members, some by robots.
Outside the assembly line, parts are made and readied for installation. To keep things running and to be able to switch from building one vehicle to building another, many parts are produced right on site.
“Anything the customer can touch outside [the car], we stamp here,” Samantha Corona told us as we toured the plant. That means that steel, aluminum and composite materials are turned into door panels, bumpers and lift gates, created and painted right on site.
The Modern Assembly Plant: Where Robots and Humans Work Together (and Merry, Lilting Tunes Can Be Heard)
Robots do 73 percent of the work at this Honda plant. They do the heavy lifting and the dangerous welding. They also do the minute detail work inside a component like a dashboard that might be impossible for humans to do because of the size and space.
Humans are charged with making sure the robots do everything to perfection. They assist, stop, inspect, and when needed, stop the line to adjust the process. There are buffer zones along the line so that when a team member needs to pull something off the line for adjustment, it doesn’t stop the process. Everything keeps going merrily along.
In the engine shop, where all of Honda’s V6 engines are built (many are shipped to other plants for installation) robots dominate. They work in closed, pristine cells with clear walls that allow supervisors to monitor the work and ensure it’s done right.
During our tour, we frequently heard what sounded like the music played by an ice cream truck. Curious, I asked. It’s a call for a supervisor, Samantha explained. When a critical decision has to be made, team members cue the music to summon a supervisor.
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What Comes Out of this Assembly Plant?
Nothing (besides vehicles). The Lincoln plant has been a “zero landfill” plant since 2000. That means it recycles 100 percent of waste on site or sends it to other facilities for reuse or repurpose. Even cafeteria cast-offs are turned into energy to power the plant.
“We had to find partners to help us recycle waste such as spent batteries, cardboard and hazardous materials,” Ted Pratt, a communications manager at the plant, said.
Partnership with the community is key to the Honda plan, he said.
Sweet Home Alabama: Why Honda Chose to Build Here
In the 1980s, the US government decided that if foreign car makers were selling cars in the US, they should build them here, too. States created financial incentive packages that greased the wheels. Honda, Toyota and Nissan all opened plants in the US.
The Southern states held appeal for their union-free workforce, cheap land and lower building costs. In the case of Lincoln, Alabama, access to natural resources like water, an electric grid, natural gas and local financial incentives helped. The city’s proximity to Talladega, where vehicles are transferred for rail shipment to dealerships, didn’t hurt either.
The region was also able to support Honda’s suppliers, an important factor. Auto manufacturers have found that having suppliers within a short distance of the assembly plant is key to keeping things running smoothly. So, 38 of the Honda plant’s suppliers are located in Alabama. Overall, Honda has 557 suppliers in the US.
This is Not Your Grandpa’s Factory Job
Jobs in assembly plants require increasingly skilled and educated job applicants. Recruiters look for people with a college or technical school degree, especially degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). From there, Honda trains employees to ensure they are fluent in their job and have the skills to keep pace with innovation.
Many Honda workers are on a career path that will include time at corporate headquarters working on supply procurement, product design, testing or engineering. If everyone in the company understands how things work at the product level, a better product is produced, Honda believes.
The Alabama plant invokes traditional Japanese manufacturing theory, which holds that employees are a team, working together and without hierarchy, toward common goals. Everyone in the plant wears a white jumpsuit, from employees in the cafeteria to plant president Jeff Tomko, whom we met on the catwalk above the production floor. Offices at the center of the main assembly line are open-walled and filled with rows of desks so team members can easily collaborate. Even Jeff’s desk is there in the mix so that he’s accessible and in touch with all the plant’s operations.
#mlkday #hondaalabama associates paint and spruce at Princeton Elementary School. #dayoff #dayofservice #hob #honda
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The Japanese philosophy didn’t seem limited to the offices or visual lack of hierarchy signaled by the white jumpsuits. As we toured the plant that day people who we met along the way smiled, some even waved at our small group. And when we left the plant we got caught up in end-of-the-shift traffic. We inched out of the parking lot beside Ridgelines, Accords and Pilots. A generation ago a Japanese auto brand might not have felt so at home here, or even welcome. But clearly Honda has found a sweet home in Alabama.