By Alisdair Suttie 11 April 2012
Wednesday 11 April 2012. Fleet Voice Column.
How long does it take to get a job at Nissan’s Sunderland factory? About 40 seconds if you take the test to get a job on its hugely efficient production line.
That’s how long it should take to place and bolt in four metal plates to a template with an electric drill. You have to follow a sequence and it sounds very easy. It’s not.
This writer needed about a minute and a half, though at least I can console myself with knowing I did everything in the correct order, which not everyone manages.
This is the genius of such a simple test. It’s explained once and the real test is only half about how quickly someone can carry it out. The other half of the test is about a candidate’s ability to listen and follow instructions to the last letter.
Why is this so important? Well, during a tour of Nissan’s Sunderland plant, it’s explained that every job along the line has an allotted time allowance. Some jobs need 40 seconds, other 29 and a few require a whopping 59 seconds. If just one of these jobs runs over by a second, that time has to be clawed back by the workers further down the line.
If that time is not regained, the consequences are disastrous as the Sunderland factory turns out half a million cars each year. Half a million seconds adds up to around 139 hours, or pretty much one full working week given the plant’s present two-shift system.
That’s a huge amount of time to be wasted and why Nissan only takes on around 8% of those who apply for a job on the production line. As pass rates go, that’s up there with the Royal Marines and SAS.
Military precision shows in other areas of the factory workers’ routine. I was fortunate enough to find myself sat next to one of the line workers responsible for checking and signing of Nissan Qashqais.
“If there’s a button, switch or gadget, I press it,” was how this warp-speed worker described his role as he not only lived up to his mantra but also filled out the associated paperwork to prove the car had passed.
If you think this sounds easy, this job had to be completed within 59 seconds and included running the car up through the gears on a rolling road to make sure the cruise control worked as it should.
When asked if he noticed working at this kind of hectic rate, one of Nissan’s finest simply replied: “You get used to it.”
Getting used to it is why, during my time in this factory that one first appearance seems quite Dickensian, the rate of cars produced was 428 for the day shift. Their target was 416, and the number of cars that need any rectification work at the end of this process is minimal and certainly far less than almost any other car production facility in the world.
This is all more impressive for the amount of human labour that goes into building a Nissan in Sunderland. That isn’t a criticism, but it is what lends that initial air of Victorian factory scale and noise.
With a little familiarity and some explanation, the overwhelming expanse of the factory is reduced as you see the production of each car broken down into section and the vehicle’s component parts.
There are around 4,500 pieces that go into making a Qashqai and some bits are initially fitted and then removed for further work, such as the doors. This means the number of jobs required to build the car increases.
However, some jobs are just amazingly quick. For instance, fitting the entire dashboard to a Qashqai takes just two seconds. Two seconds: that is astonishing, even when the two workers have the help of a huge hydraulic lift. They have to collect the dash, position it and bolt it in, yet the final fix is only a couple of seconds’ work.
Then there’s positioning the rear windscreens. No robot is used here, just the skilled and experienced eyes of two factory workers. They have tiny tolerances to work to, yet they get it right car after car, shift after shift.
It’s this kind of exacting standard that has won the Nissan factory so many accolades and also won it the business to build the Nissan LEAF and upcoming Invitation small car. This is on top of the Nissan Juke being built in the north east of England alongside the Qashqai.
Then there’s yesterday’s announcement that Nissan will also produce an all-new small hatch model at the Sunderland plant. No name has been given to this model, but it’s due on sale in 2014 in the UK and will result in the UK factory moving to a three shift, around the clock routine for the first time.
All of this guarantees work for the factory for a further eight years and Nissan is also looking to take on around 625 more employees to cope with the workload. When you consider every job at the Nissan factory generates six more jobs outside of the plant in the supply chain, Nissan is a vital force in and around Sunderland as the factory currently employs around 5500 workers.
Efficient and dedicated, affordable and desirable
What does all of this have to do with company car drivers? Simple, really. It means if you choose a Nissan Juke, Qashqai, Leaf or the forthcoming Invitation you’ll be supporting British jobs and industry, even if it does have a Nissan badge on the bonnet.
Not only that, you’ll be ordering a car that is built by some of the most efficient and dedicated car workers in the world.
In a time when so many jobs in the UK have been outsourced from the country due to cost constraints, it’s a real heart warmer to know there are cars being built here in volume that are affordable and desirable.
Not only that, the success of Nissan’s Sunderland plant has generated more success for itself as Nissan is investing £125 million in the north east so it can build the Invitation. This is on top of the cash spent building a battery production facility for the LEAF.
This shows true confidence from Nissan in its British factory and is high praise for its workforce that it can see off competition from Nissan’s other factories from around the globe to win the chance to build important new cars.
At a time when it seems British industry is continually being pounded, the success of Nissan’s Sunderland factory is great news. Just take a second to think about this and it shows the UK can still cut it in the global auto industry.