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Japanese automakers streamline domestic operations to boost competitiveness

Publication Date : 06-07-2012


In hopes of boosting competitiveness overseas and securing jobs at home, automakers are pushing to expand efficiency levels at their domestic plants.

While many leading Japanese manufacturers have moved production bases outside the country as a result of the ever-rising yen, structural reforms taking place in the Japanese automobile sector with its diverse supporting industry have been drawing attention.

Mazda Motor Corp. began producing four different types of gasoline engines and one type of diesel engine on a single production line in January at its flagship plant in Hiroshima.

The critical process of engine assembly differs greatly between types, and it has long been considered difficult to produce different engines on a single assembly line.

However, the Hiroshima plant has succeeded in unifying the production line to adapt to different engines, according to a plant official in charge of the production line, with the company tackling the challenge from the design stage.

The same production line is also capable of producing eight different vehicle bodies, ranging from the compact Demio to the MPV minivan.

From next March, Mazda plans to add production of the CX-5 sport-utility vehicle to the line, further boosting the plant's operating rate.

Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. is revamping its main plant in Gunma Prefecture to handle multiple automobile models. The plant currently produces only the Subaru BRZ, a sports car also marketed by Toyota Motor Corp. as the 86. However, starting next month the plant will also produce the compact Impreza.

Meanwhile, Toyota introduced in 2010 what the company calls accordion-style production, in which the length of the assembly line can be extended or contracted in line with output.

For example, at high production volumes, the installation of 15 screws is done by five workers who drive in three screws each. When output falls, the same 15 screws are installed by only three workers driving in five screws each. By shifting assembly patterns, idle workers can be used more efficiently elsewhere.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda has said the automobile industry would lose 200,000 jobs in Japan if the production of about 1 million units was moved abroad.

Efforts by automakers to improve efficiency at their domestic plants are expected to contribute to maintaining the domestic automobile workforce.

However, Nissan Motor Co. suspended one assembly line at its Oppama plant in Kanagawa Prefecture late last month, and Toyota has said it will move production of North America-bound Yaris models, a compact car marketed as the Vitz in Japan, to France.

It therefore remains to be seen if streamlining production at home will effectively prevent the hollowing-out of the domestic industrial sector.


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