When I first got the chance to tour the zero-landfill Subaru of Indiana plant, where cars like the Legacy and the Outback are built, my perception of the cars I drive and review every week changed forever. Seeing how and why the cars we drive are being built in an environmentally conscientious manner is one thing, but learning about what goes into making a car from start to finish is a whole other bag of chips. Everything from the assembly worker turn-around time to the glue being used plays a crucial roll. It’s amazing to see massive rolls of steel enter one end of a building and finished cars come out the other, as the amount of engineering that goes into making just a single robot work flawlessly every day is completely mind boggling.
So when I got an invitation to watch the first 10th generation Honda Civic roll off the line over in Greensburg, Indiana the other week, I snagged up my trusty Nikon and hit the open road. I arrived at the 1,600-acre facility after driving for an hour amidst the ragged remnants of Hurricane Patricia, and as I slogged my way to the welcome center I realized that this Honda plant was surrounded by seven small lakes, like an automotive atoll, patiently waiting out the storm.
Once inside, the line-off quickly ensued. Plant president Bob Nelson proudly proclaimed that Indiana has been a great place to “grow our business,” and how $900 million in investments has yielded a car that “solidifies our position going forward.” Applause happened, photo ops were abundant, members of the media asked common questions, and then everyone went back to work. No celebratory ribbon cutting or elongated speeches about teamwork and brand building here — just a brief, appreciative speech from the man upstairs (who wears a white jumpsuit just like everyone else) and some Q&A time with both the new Civic’s project leader and team manager, Troy Niemeier and Jennifer Cissell.
Once the assembly lines were back up and buzzing, a select few of us were asked if we wanted to tour the plant and get some photos — something which few people have been granted; Honda is notorious for its secrecy when it comes to manufacturing. Things were looking like they couldn’t get any better, when suddenly, they did: A Japanese gentleman, who was here for five years as an ex-pat and had the word “Sushi” embroidered on his Honda jumpsuit’s breast, asked if he could go on the plant tour with me. Tour a super secretive, 1.3 million square-foot assembly plant in the middle of a hurricane with a guy named “Sushi” and learn about the new Civic? Sure. Why not.
The first thing you notice about the Honda Manufacturing of Indiana (HMIN) plant when you get inside is how quiet it is. Over 250,000 cars roll out of this place annually, with 2,300 shift workers toiling around the clock 24/7 to produce 75% of the world’s Honda Civics, and yet somehow it isn’t an assault on your ears like what I experienced at Subaru, where ear plugs were dolled out even before entering the facilities. We weren’t even offered ear protection — because that’s how quiet these operations are. Sure there is still a lot of industrial noise, but it was composed, with almost an operating room feel to the whole thing, which is oh-so very Honda of them if you think about it.
As we continued our tour past brightly lit assembly lines and massive shipping containers packed full of pre-assembled key components, my new-found friend Sushi and I began to soak in all that our tour guide had to offer. This isn’t just something that you sign up for like you would at the Subie plant an hour up the road. This was a rare glimpse into the secret world of Honda, and we were about to kick nerd mode into overdrive as we headed back to the far corner of the factory to look at a piece of the new Civic that most people typically take for granted.
The dash of the 10th generation Honda Civic is a sweeping, low-cut slice of flawlessness, with visibility and driving experience as its priority. But what most people don’t know is that just below the surface lies another key component, one we take for granted: Ever wonder where passenger airbags pop-out of in modern cars? Long gone are those unsightly “SRS” stamps and obvious airbag cut-outs above the glovebox, and in their place resides … nothing. Flipping over a freshly molded dash, our guide shows us that there still is a trapdoor in place, but now the only sign that there is one is a series of microscopic slits, which I had issues seeing even up close.
From there, we meandered back toward the hardcore assembly side of things where massive blue robots welded, moved, and rotated exposed Civic skeletons, tirelessly piecing together their creations. At this point we stopped so I could get some photos, and so that Sushi (who I had now discovered was Atsushi Ohara, staff administrator for Honda) could get a closer look at a fascinating part of the manufacturing process. As we stood there, watching welding sparks shoot out in every direction, our guide leaned in and murmured, “You know those are our robots right?” I stood back, coming to grips with what he was saying. Honda is making Hondas in order to make Hondas. Talk about offering more than motorcycles, mowers, compact cars, jets, boat engines, and snow blowers!
Back on the assembly line, workers bolted in the Civic’s new front clip, which comes to them pre-welded and already assembled (courtesy of one of their 150 suppliers) so that it can slide onto the nose of the car with the help of a robotic arm without issue. We’re told that this new assembly technique has revolutionized the way Honda builds cars, cutting assembly times and oversights down significantly, all while offering a structure from which the rest of the 2016 Civic has been built around. Throw that in with a wheel attachment process that drives five lug nuts on simultaneously, and a robot that bolts sub-frames in at near light speed, and you’ve got an assembly line that is moving at a breakneck pace.
Before we go, let’s back up for a minute and look at Honda’s manufacturing success story. While this plant has only been up and operating since October 9, 2008, the story starts way back in 1979 when Honda became the first Japanese automaker to begin producing motorized vehicles in America. Granted, these were CR 250 Elsinore motorcycles, but just three years later, in 1982, the Marysville, Ohio plant opened its doors ushering in the Accord’s American birthright and paving the way for both the Anna, Ohio and Lincoln, Alabama plants. Since then, Honda has created more than 367,000 private sector jobs, dished out over $17 billion in annual wages and salaries, and the Indiana plant alone now utilizes 120 suppliers in the Midwest region, with 18 of the 60 Civic-component making companies being in Indiana.
But jobs and revenue generation are only part of the Honda promise. Subaru isn’t the only one with an environmentally sound approach to automotive production and testing. Remember all of those lakes I noticed when making my way to the welcome center? All seven of those lakes serve as natural aquatic filters, protecting nearby farmland from sediments and runoff, and after infusing a vital floodplain with fresh, creek-side forest growth, the level of biodiversity this location has seen in recent years is nothing short of astounding. More than 6,000 native plants have been reforested, 350 acres of property have been leased for farming purposes, and a manufacturing plant that was specifically designed to have “the smallest environmental footprint of all North American auto plants” is now classified as the third North American Honda plant to be a “zero waste-to-landfill facility.”
Even the welcome center has received certification from the Green Building Certification Institute as the top of the building is crowned by 12 Honda Soltec solar panels. Yet standing there with Sushi by my side and a glistening new Civic in front of us, thoughts of going green quickly spiraled into thoughts of what is next for the Japan-based giant. I was there to cover the 10th gen Civic’s reveal in Detroit, and a few weeks later we got to drive both the turbocharged 1.5-liter version as well as the simpler 2.0-liter model, but will this controversial car be a hit?
Considering that the Honda Civic remains one of the best selling cars of all time, and that it is rumored to be up for a “car of the year” award, chances are it is going to sell well regardless of what we think. This thought came to the forefront as I said my goodbyes to Mr. Sushi and stepped outside to re-familiarize myself with Patricia’s wrath. Honda will do just fine. Plants like this reinforce that fact, and I cannot wait to tour the next three plants.
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