Alliston, Ontario – With the requisite flashing lights and too-loud music, the ceremonial “first” 2016 Honda Civic rolled off this Canadian assembly line on October 20, 2015. But this was more than just the introduction of an all-new model.
The Canadian facility was the lead plant for the Civic, setting up the production, developing the systems, ironing out the kinks, and then training other plants in how to do it. It’s the first time in Honda’s history for a factory outside of Japan to be in charge.
The new Civic is a global design, and every plant that builds it, from Indiana to England, Turkey to Thailand, will follow the processes developed in Canada.
Honda first came to Canada in 1969 with motorcycles and power equipment, and started selling the Civic, its first Canadian automotive offering, in 1973. The company became the first Japanese manufacturer to open a factory in this country when it built the Alliston plant in 1986 to make the Accord. A second factory, initially producing the Odyssey, opened in 1998.
The entire facility now consists of four plants, making the Civic in the original factory, along with the CR-V in its Plant 2, engines in Plant 3, and bumpers in Plant 4. My tour took me through the Civic facility, which is now building the all-new, tenth-generation version.
Of all the cars made here, 75 per cent will go to the U.S., while 23 per cent will remain in Canada, and the remainder will travel to Latin America. While American buyers will get Civics made either in Ontario or Ohio, all Civics sold in Canada are made in Canada.
As with any other auto plant, the place is a hive of activity. These are some 4,200 employees overall, and all those on the assembly line wear white uniforms. The plant runs two shifts, and within their specific areas, employees can trade jobs between themselves after a few hours, which a Honda representative says can help reduce repetitive injuries. The plant is not unionized, and while wages weren’t revealed, the rep says that Honda generally follows whatever the Detroit automakers negotiate with their workers’ unions.
Unlike many plants that bring in many of the vehicle’s sub-assemblies already built by outside suppliers, Honda makes almost everything itself within the overall Alliston facility. Once the panels are stamped and welded together by robots to produce the car’s body, it’s prepped for paint.
As in most plants, the paint shop is the bottleneck, since eight of the 13 hours it takes to make each car are spent here, most of it in the paint curing process. About 30 cars are grouped at a time to be painted one of the seven available colours. It only takes a minute to change the colour being sprayed, but in a plant where a car comes off the line every 63 seconds, it’s important to minimize the number of times this has to be done.
Various areas build up the components that will go into the car. It takes 13 minutes to create an instrument panel, and the assemblers are guided by a build sheet that tells them such information as the colour, whether the speedometer should be in miles or kilometres, and airbag identification. An inspection document follows the car, and is filed at the end of the assembly line to legally register it as a finished vehicle with the federal government. The document is also entered into Honda’s database, so individual components can be tracked if any turn out to be defective and require a recall.
For most of their journey, the cars have been travelling nose-to-tail on the assembly line, but at a certain point they all turn sideways and move along door-to-door so their front modules and rear components can be more easily installed. The Civic factory is the only Honda plant that does this, primarily because the car’s small enough that it can fit this way in the space provided.
The modules, which include the bumper core and radiator, come in from Plant 4 and are loaded onto conveyors that travel along the ceiling. As each Civic moves along, a module comes down to the factory floor, where a worker picks it up with a hydraulic lift and manoeuvres it into place. As the line continues sideways, workers install other components while standing between the car and the parts bins, which hold enough of each item for one hour’s worth of assembly.
There are very few robots on the final assembly line, but those that are there tackle such jobs as installing the windshield and rear window, using lasers and three cameras for accurate positioning.
Once finished, each car is started up and drive-tested twice, the first time on a dynamometer. After that, every car goes outside for a spin around a 1.7-kilometre test track, where drivers test the acceleration and brakes, listen for wind noise, and drive over cobblestones to check for rattles. The track isn’t salted in winter and if the weather turns too nasty, cars are parked under a huge tent until it’s possible to use the track again. A Honda rep confirms that no car leaves without this step.
Some 90 per cent of production leaves by rail, while the remaining 10 per cent, destined for dealers in southern Ontario, is shipped out on trucks. The combined Civic and CR-V plants turn out 1,700 vehicles each day, five days a week. Cumulatively, the facility has made more than seven million vehicles since 1986.
The plant’s management has changed over the years as well. While some 15 per cent used to be assigned directly from Japan, the facility is now almost entirely run from within. And while being a lead plant for an all-new vehicle is a long and often difficult process, this is the one that’s teaching the world.