Honda's Acura NSX masterstroke: building the factory in Ohio

Autoline on Autoblog with John McElroy.

When Honda announced it was going to build its NSX supercar in Ohio instead of Japan, it caught everybody in the industry by surprise. No one expected this proud Japanese company to build its most technologically advanced sports car anywhere but in its home country. Now Honda has a supercar production facility in rural Ohio that would be the envy of any Formula One team.

The people at Honda call it the PMC, but its official name is the Performance Manufacturing Center. It's a building that started out as a shipping facility for suppliers, but Honda invested $70 million to transform it into a showcase facility that will build the NSX.

Honda benchmarked the assembly operations at Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren, and Bentley before work began on its facility. The 200,000 square-foot building will also double as a customer reception center – Honda will open the doors for customers to come see their car being built. It's also going to offer them high-speed test drives at the gigantic Transportation Research Center just down the road.

No one expected this proud Japanese company to build its most technologically advanced sports car anywhere but in its home country.

Inside, the layout is wide open and well lit. There are no stripes or lines on the floor and none of the different departments are walled off. This creates a more welcoming appearance and lets you get a comprehensive view of the entire process at a glance. And with an eye towards future lessons learned, most of the equipment is of a modular design that can be easily reconfigured or moved.

The body shop and paint shop are enclosed by glass walls so that anyone can see what's going on inside. And while you'll see some automation here and there, the idea was to achieve a blend between man and machine, not to try and automate everything.

This is a low-volume facility with production targeted at only eight to ten cars a day. The plant runs four days a week with one ten-hour shift. Don't expect to see rows of new NSXs parked on any dealer's lot. The car will only be built to order.

Honda is obsessed with ensuring the NSX is built to the most exacting quality standards. The plant people pored over the JD Power Appeal study to determine what supercar customers care about the most, then looked at which aspects of that directly tie into manufacturing. They developed their quality control strategy with three goals in mind. First, they wanted to build everything right the first time with no adjustments. Second, they wanted a production facility that matches the craftsmanship of the car. And third, they wanted to pioneer new manufacturing technology that could be used in the future for Honda's mass-production models.

Instead of having a quality control team for each department, the plant only uses one team to ensure they're focused of the quality of the entire car and not just certain sections of it. Each station does its own inline inspection so that no defect moves down the line. Each technician on the line has over 20 years of manufacturing experience.

But even with all this attention to detail there clearly is a steep learning curve. So far the plant has built 160 NSXs to test out the assembly process, a very high number of preproduction prototypes. Some of them will be used as test cars for the media and some will be used as demo cars at dealerships, but the rest will be crushed and scrapped.

While there are some welding and painting robots in the plant, the NSX is essentially a hand-built car. Every single nut, bolt and screw – all 547 of them – are hand started to make sure none of them are cross threaded. And there is no moving assembly line. Each car is pushed to the next station by hand. To prevent any dings, dents or scratches as the car goes through the assembly process, the body panels are the last thing to go on the car.

This is truly just an assembly plant, with all the stampings, moldings and extrusions coming from other Honda facilities or from suppliers. For example, the body panels come from Honda Marysville. The structural aluminum parts come from the supplier Hodaka. Small stampings come from Dayton Rogers and Challenge Manufacturing. Aluminum extrusions come from Sapa Extrusions in Ohio and from YKK in Japan.

The engine comes from Honda's nearby engine plant in the city of Anna, where six master builders and two technicians make each one by hand. Every master builder has at least 24 years of experience and has been to Japan twice to learn how to do the builds at Honda's R&D center there.

The tool chests they use are made out of a special plastic that does not scratch or scrape, so that plastic shavings do not contaminate the machined parts. Each tool chest is washed after every engine is completed. Honda picked up this trick from its passenger jet assembly operations.

It takes five to six hours to assemble one engine versus the 30 seconds that it takes for one of Honda's mass-production engines to pop off the line. One reason it takes so long is that they use shims to adjust the valves, and they have to measure the clearance of each valve with a special tool calibrated to micron accuracy. They also use hand wipes to clean every surface that gets a gasket or sealer. The cure time for the sealer alone can take three hours.

Every engine is broken in at the plant so that customers can drive it wide open or do as many holeshots as they want the day they buy the car. The nine-speed DCT, which comes from Japan, is also broken in for one hour. And they don't just balance the engine, they balance it in conjunction with its integrated hybrid motor. There are extra holes drilled in the electric motor so that lighter or heavier bolts can be used to balance it.

Though the engine is assembled in Ohio, all the major components are sourced from Europe. The block and the head are cast by Granger & Worral in the UK, which by the way does the castings for all the Formula One engines (except, ironically enough, for Honda's F1 engine). Other castings come from Fonderia Gatelli in Italy. All the machining for the head and block are done by Cosworth in the UK.

The one truly innovative manufacturing process used on this car involves ablation casting. Remember, the space frame of the NSX is comprised of aluminum extrusions that are fitted into six different aluminum nodes in a Tinker Toy kind of arrangement. The hollow nodes are made with sand castings, but in this case the binder that holds the sand together is water-soluble. Shortly after molten aluminum is poured into the mold it's sprayed with water that washes the sand away. This ablation process cools the aluminum more quickly, resulting in a solid micro structure with better elongation properties. In other words, it's stronger and lighter.

Honda has been very slow getting this car to market. The first concept version was shown in 2007. Then, after it was well into the project, Honda slammed on the brakes and started all over again. The final production design was unveiled well over a year ago and the first media test drives took place in late 2015.

But finally, the end has come. The first production cars rolled down the line April 1.
John McElroy John McElroy is host of the TV program Autoline This Week and an automotive industry expert. He also hosts the web series Autoline Daily and Autoline After Hours .

Share This Photo X