Honda rethinks Henry Ford’s assembly line

Honda says its “assembly revolution cell” approach, in which teams of workers travel with vehicles on U-shaped lines, is cheaper to install, requires less manpower and operates more efficiently than a conventional assembly line.

TOKYO — When Henry Ford pioneered the assembly line more than a century ago, a key innovation was dividing the work of building a Model T into one or two tasks per worker.

His reasoning? Assemblers could work faster if they didn’t have to keep track of multiple tasks and the correct order of installation. Training workers to install one or two parts was faster and easier than training them to build entire sections of a car. It made it easier for Ford to recruit and train a work force.

Now Honda Motor Co. is challenging those time-tested assumptions as it reinvents mass production for its own signature nameplate, the Civic.

In March, Honda introduced the novel assembly approach at its just-opened car plant in Prachinburi, Thailand. The line requires each worker to handle as many jobs as five workers would handle on a traditional Honda line.

But the change results in an unfamiliar production design that is likely to begin showing up at other Honda plants.

Workers now follow the car down the assembly line, instead of staying in one place and working briefly on every car that passes through their station and handing it off to the next worker.

Honda dubs its new approach an “assembly revolution cell,” or ARC. Honda says such a line is cheaper to install, requires less manpower and operates more efficiently than a conventional line. In Thailand, teams of four people doing final assembly work travel with a vehicle as it snakes around a U-shaped line.

Parts and people ride on a disc-shaped platform that carries them around the U. When the platform passes from one end of the U to the other, the empty parts cartons are removed and the workers hop off. They then walk across to the starting point and climb aboard a disc for their next vehicle.

The new Thai line produces the Civic compact sedan, which itself was reinvented last year for its 10th generation to improve its styling, handling, performance, fuel efficiency and safety.

Honda debuted the new line in Thailand because that was the first plant to open after the assembly technology was ready. While Honda has no immediate plans to introduce ARC lines to older plants, the lines may be used when Honda opens or expands a site.

According to Honda, the new approach reduces unnecessary worker movement from line-side parts racks. It divides the car into quarters for the teams, assigning one worker responsibility for all processes in a certain vehicle area.

By doing so, Honda says it boosts line efficiency 10 percent over the conventional approach. It also reduces the workload of handling and transporting parts by 10 percent, Honda said.

ARC lines are cheaper and easier to install because they don’t require digging pits in the factory floor or installing car-hanging machinery, Honda said. And cells can be added and taken away to adjust the line’s length and configuration like the tracks of a model train.

Under the new system, workers perform many more tasks as they move down the line with the car, performing the workload normally handled by five. But the main purpose is not to cut head count, Honda insisted. While ARC lines require fewer factory workers, Honda said it will offset that by hiring more workers in product development.

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