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Nissan plant by the numbers: 4,000 workers and 156,000 vehicles in first year

Automaker celebrates a very happy anniversary in Canton

CANTON — The first year of life for the Nissan automotive assembly plant in this Central Mississippi community just up Interstate 55 from Jackson began with a drum roll and ended amid fanfare.

“There’s no doubt we located in the right place,” said Greg Daniels, senior vice president for U.S. manufacturing for Nissan North America Inc. (NNA). “The first year brought a lot of excitement and notoriety to all of Nissan, but more importantly, to the team of employees we have in the state of Mississippi. All the accolades go to those folks.”

From May 27, 2003, to May 19, 2004, Nissan Canton cranked out 156,000 vehicles, including 61,500 Quests, 56,000 Titans, 33,000 Armadas and 5,500 QX56s. On June 4, the cast of 4,000 will launch the Altima, and at full capacity, the $1.4 billion automotive assembly plant will produce 400,000 vehicles.

“We had a very successful first year in Canton,” said Dan Gaudette, senior vice president for North American manufacturing and quality assurance for NNA. “We were able to stay ahead of our production requirements and launch five vehicles in less than one year. That’s unprecedented in the auto industry.”

Tom Groom, director of human resources for NNA, said the Canton facility met a very ambitious launch schedule.

“For those first months, we had an unbelievable schedule,” he said. “The first year — for the manufacturing, engineering and support teams, suppliers and everyone involved in this process — was a major undertaking.”

Gaudette said the challenges of starting up the Canton plant were no different than starting up any other Greenfield facility “except for the magnitude of launches.”

“We had some pretty aggressive launch curves to get up to speed,” he said. “It was important to get one product launched, up to speed and running because the next product was coming up right behind it. Those challenges were great while also tweaking the equipment and facility and hiring and training personnel.”

One of the greatest challenges during the first year of operations concerned the construction phase of the facility, including the second phase, which isn’t quite finished yet, said Gaudette.

“Completing the facility and getting it capable and ready to support the launches of the products doesn’t happen all at one time,” he said. “It’s a timed and planned process to build the facility with all of the equipment necessary to support product launches because they are somewhat independent in nature, even though there are common operations within. Independent lines are supporting individual products as they go through their launch curve. That’s a challenge because not only are you going through this process from the first to last vehicle, but as you go from the first to the second, you have to maintain the first vehicle, and they’re somewhat intertwined. It adds some complexity and certainly some concerns that you have to work around.”

Including the 4,000 Nissan employees, about 5,300 people, including contract workers, labor under Nissan’s roof.

“We’re real satisfied with the level of people that we’ve been able to hire in Mississippi and, more importantly, we’re still excited about the job they do,” said Daniels. “They’ve trained well, learned their task well, and have done everything we’ve asked them to do. They’ve had great ideas and recommendations. It was really a great team effort.”

For several years, Nissan’s first Greenfield assembly plant in the U.S., built in Smyrna, Tenn., in the early 1980s, has been recognized as the world’s most efficient automotive assembly plant. The Canton facility is poised to take that honor, but not immediately, said Daniels.

“You really can’t compare a 20+-year facility in Smyrna with this group,” he said. “It’ll take a couple of years to get everything fine-tuned before you could compare the two. We’re still in the hiring process.”

Michael Flynn, director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute’s Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation, stopped short of saying that launching five vehicles in less than a year was unprecedented in the automotive industry.

“It may be somewhat unprecedented because of how quickly they’ve done it at a new plant,” he said. “It does reflect changes in the industry, that there are fewer and fewer vehicles that can fill a plant. There are fewer and fewer vehicles that can fill half a plant. So you really need to be flexible. If you look at Mitsubishi in Illinois, they’ve had their problems, but they also can do a lot of different vehicles on their line. Nissan is doing what more and more companies will try to do with new plants.

“It’s impressive that they have been able to bring four out while getting the plant up to speed and that they’re getting the fifth in. This is a very, very fast ramp up. Nissan’s ramp up in Smyrna, Tenn., was a much slower and more deliberate one. They’ve learned. They’ve gotten faster and made the world a harder place to make a buck in the auto industry.”

Flynn said it’s too early to predict J. D. Power & Associates’ quality rating for Nissan.

“The last few years, Nissan quality has been a little below the industry average, but it did move up a bit last year,” he said. Bob Croisdale, general manager of CalsonicKansei North America in Vicksburg, a supplier to Nissan, pointed out that the five-vehicle product launch in one year “is unheard of” in the automotive industry.

“I emphasize that to our associates in our employee meetings,” he said. “As a component supplier, we have kept right up with the product launches and we’ve never done anything like that before. Nissan has brought us right along with them. There have been a lot of records set here in Mississippi.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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