This week we visited the Nissan Factory and found out what it takes to produce over 500,000 cars per year, from the punishing presses to the production line.
I’m not going to lie, I was a little apprehensive when I was told that I was going to be visiting the Nissan factory in Sunderland. I mean, yes, I work with cars, but this is usually behind the (relative) safety of a computer screen as part of the Lookers Marketing team.
To get the chance to see them made from scratch inside a living, breathing factory, all sound tracked by whirring robots and punishing presses, was certainly an environment unfamiliar to me and most of my colleagues on the tour.
When you’re tasked with helping to sell the finished product, it’s easy to forget about the actual work that goes into making cars. Well it’s something that I will certainly appreciate a lot more after this thoroughly fascinating tour.
The factory has been a huge part of the North East economy since it was opened in 1988 on a 799 acre-greenfield site in Sunderland. Producing 25,000 cars a year, the factory would play a major part in introducing the Nissan brand to British motorists, with the Bluebird, the first model to roll out of the factory, quickly becoming a familiar site on our roads.
At a time when the North East was still reeling from continued industrial decline and the closure of its shipyards and coal fields, it’s hard to underestimate how much the factory breathed life back into the region, providing much needed jobs and helping to reinstate the sense of pride that had long characterised its people for generations. The site employs 7,000 staff with a further 28,000 working within its mostly North-East based supply chain. Describing the factory as vital would be an understatement.
These days the 799-acre plant produces a mind boggling 507,000 cars a year, including the much-celebrated Nissan Juke, the hugely popular Nissan Qashqai and the unofficial standard-bearer for the electric car revolution, the Nissan Leaf. Most recently the factory began producing Infinity models, making it the first site outside of Japan to produce this luxury brand.
Doing the robot
Once we had run through the obligatory health and safety talks, Frank, our tour guide, took us to the factory’s body shop where we were greeted by an army of robots and presses working in complete harmony to transform single sheets of steel into the refined car bodies we all recognise.
And while a factory that produces two cars every minute and relies on robots that can complete 88 laser welds every 40 seconds, could have been a shock to the system, I was surprised at how delicate the process seemed at times. Each of the 500 robots performed a rhythmical ballet of such symbiotic synchronicity that I found myself as mesmerised by their motion as I was by their sheer efficiency.
There would then come a sudden crashing interlude when we passed by a huge 5,200 tonne Hitachi press, which rattled the senses like a giant gong in the midst of what was a comparably serene robotic concerto. Stamping the metal three times with uniquely designed cutting and shaping ‘dies’, it certainly made an impression, as did the sparks that penetrated the safety fence, which would have definitely made an impression on our eyeballs had it not been for the safety goggles that we were thankfully provided with at the start of the tour.
The shop houses seven of these five storey high presses, each sitting side by side like a herd of T-Rex munching through a steady diet of sheet metal. At least a dozen lorries deposit a relentless supply of 6ft high sheets to this monster factory, which sees more than 1.7 million panels punched into shape each month by a force the equivalent to 40 tonnes. It’s jaw dropping.
The Nissan Beauty Parade
Once the shells are fully formed (I’ve skipped ahead here, there was lots of detail, lots) the car bodies are gently carried by two overhead lines into the paint shop, where they receive the ultimate make over. Before this they receive a thorough dusting down with the help of a plumage of female ostrich feathers.
Why ostrich feathers you may ask? Apparently, they attract the most dust. Why female? Frank didn’t have an answer for that. Do Nissan breed ostriches on site? It didn’t feel like it was the right time to ask Frank.
This exhaustive painting process sees the shells dipped into glittering paint, baked, waxed and covered in protective resin. And while the colours of your average Nissan rarely deviate from black, white or silver, the transformation was as impressive as anything I’ve seen a sportsman or fading politician pull off on Strictly Come Dancing, though I’m sure they adhere to a similar beauty regime.
We were then taken to Trim and Chassis line, which for the most part traded in robots for good old-fashioned man power and the real blood, sweat and soul of the plant.
Armed with an array of hydraulically supported tools and fixing guns, this well drilled army of technicians were the epitome of dexterity, hard work and efficiency. They have to be, with each one responsible for very specific elements of the car, from the bumpers and fuel tank right down to the floor carpet, given only 59 seconds to do their job. It’s breath-taking to witness.
The work is carried out via a three-shift rotation, with strict timings for lunch and ‘comfort breaks’. Yes, self-discipline is a key attribute here. The tools needed for a specific job are carried along the line with the cars and arrive in exactly the same spot each time. There’s no reaching around for a screwdriver, no checking the recesses of your toolbox for the right screw. It’s there, in the same place, every time. Dropping something isn’t an option, the guy next to you will make sure of it, with the subsequent banter as fast and furious as the work carried out.
This isn’t to say that these workers are as autonomous as their robotic counterparts. Far from it. In fact, each are well versed in the art of ‘Kaizen’, which, while useless if you find yourself in a tussle with Jackie Chan, can help workers make the factory run even smoother. Kaizen is the Japanese concept of continuous improvement, meaning any worker who thinks they or the factory as a whole can do something better, can pitch the idea. If the idea floats it is immediately planned for and implemented. On the shop floor through, going freestyle isn’t an option.
We then arrive at the testing line, with everything from braking to water resistance tested to exhausting levels of quality control. For the most part, they needn’t bother, 98% of the cars that come off the line are without fault or error. However, this thorough testing process is vital if these proud workers are to make sure they are keeping to their own exacting standards of build, quality and craftmanship.
The cars come thick and fast, so much so that we’re greeted with a traffic jam at the end of the line. A Leaf waits patiently to be charged, while a Juke revs its plucky engine in anticipation of the road ahead. A Qashqai screeches around a small circular test track behind us. It’s a final encore to this beautifully deafening and perfectly exhausting tour. The Nissan factory in Sunderland is an exhilarating place to be and is a testament to the Nissan brand and the hard-working spirit of the North East and its people.