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Honda Insight ramps up left-handed models to meet U.S. demand

Thu, 26 Mar 2009

Honda's new Insight hybrid hatchback has been on sale barely a week in the United States. But the company's sprawling plant here is already churning out 600 a day.

And about half of the sleek-silhouetted Insights rolling down Suzuka's Line 1 have left-handed steering wheels, attesting to Honda's optimism for booming business in North America.

But executives at Suzuka say production outside Japan is a long way off.

For starters, many of the suppliers making hybrid components, including the all-important batteries, are found only in Japan. Then there are concerns about finding the right workers.

"To expand overseas, we need to develop our human resources," said Hidetomo Mori, the Suzuka plant manager. "Hardwarewise, it is simple to manufacture the hybrids anywhere. But right now we lack the necessary engineers."

Line 1 at Suzuka is the only Honda line making hybrid vehicles. It also makes the Civic and Fit. But about three-quarters of Line 1's daily output of 800 units is devoted to the Insight, plant officials said during a recent tour of the factory, just south of Nagoya in central Japan.

Norio Ano, who heads Honda's global Civic and Insight programs, said it is too soon to provide a tally of U.S. orders for the Insight. But demand will be hot, if Japan is any indication.

The car went on sale here Feb. 6 and quickly racked up 21,000 orders by March 23. That's nearly triple Honda's domestic sales target of 5,000 a month. The company wants to sell 200,000 Insights a year globally, with 100,000 coming from North America.

Honda can stretch Suzuka's capacity for hybrid vehicles to 250,000 units a year, thanks to a number of manufacturing innovations and by instituting overtime or a faster work pace.

One key to cranking out more is a new subassembly area where elite workers make the Insight's so-called IPU, the nerve center that houses the car's batteries and power control unit.

When Honda had only the Civic Hybrid to contend with, the IPUs were handmade. One worker would assemble an entire unit, limiting daily output to around 250.

Now, the assembly is automated on a line, with each worker handling only one process, such as loading the cylindrical batteries into their case. Two robots have been added to tightly bolt shut the IPU case with precision. Daily capacity has jumped to 1,000.

Honda was able to achieve four times the output with just twice as many workers.

Honda Motor Co. President Takeo Fukui has said he will consider building the Insight overseas if North American sales stabilize at around 100,000 units a year.

The model was designed to be made anywhere in the world. Yasunari Seki, the Insight's chief engineer, abandoned plans to use aluminum in the car's body panels because it would have limited global production to places with local supplies of the metal.

By Hans Greimel- Automotive News