19 June 2012
Turning over a new Leaf
Nissan engineering boss Richard Ebrahim reveals the energy-saving secrets behind the car giant's revered Sunderland site, which will start making the Leaf, an all-new electric car from 2013. Max Gosney reports
Card, polythene and rubber gloves whir past on a conveyor belt like an industrial tribute to The Generation Game. "Oh, look at that," says one Nissan operator, raising hopes of a giant cuddly toy making an unlikely cameo from lineside. "Rear tail-light covers," he exclaims, holding aloft two rogue pieces of red plastic from the materials recovery facility. "Now we'll find out exactly who put those there."
Welcome to Nissan Sunderland, where sustainability goes beyond the back pages of a glossy corporate brochure. Ten on-site wind turbines, planned mass production of electric vehicles, an ambition to cut carbon emissions by 20% by 2016 and intensive energy metering to realise that pledge. "The targets we set here are far more severe than the Nissan Green Programme," explains site engineering director Richard Ebrahim, referring to the car giant's global commitment to cut emissions, boost recycling and achieve a 'symbiosis of people, vehicles and nature'. "When we miss one of those targets, there's an investigation to find out why."
Raising the bar is an occupational hazard on Wearside. The plant smashed the record for the most cars produced by a UK automotive site last year and is hailed as one of Europe's most efficient factories. Ebrahim and his team aim to ensure it's also one of the most environmentally friendly. "It's quite simple," says Ebrahim when asked how he converts over 5,000 workers to Nissan's green gospel. "5S. Everything has a place and everything should be in its place.
We audit the whole process. It's one thing saying you do it and putting the banners up, but you have to go and look in the bins to really find out if people are doing it right."
Ebrahim and his management team can be found lifting lids with vigour every month. Those found chucking carburettors in the card bin can expect collective punishment, explains Ebrahim. "You'll get a black spot against your department and that's going to bring down their overall score. The sections are all competing against each other on 5S and nobody wants to let their peers down."
The camaraderie is reinforced by dedicated energy teams drawn from all corners of the factory. "It's their role to manage the energy use in a particular area," explains Ebrahim. Each team is armed with metering data to police use and charged with delivering energy-saving kaizen. Some of the best improvement ideas are typically the simplest, according to Ebrahim. "We actually stripped out lights from the fittings where we didn't need them and have replaced areas with low energy lighting."
A similar no-nonsense assessment of compressed air use has saved more than £250,000 a year, the Nissan chief reveals. "In our paintshop the drying units had five compressors because the system was so old. We switched to new dryers and we can actually turn one compressor off. That saves us £200,000 a year." Another initiative saw £60,000 saved by pooling the site's 18 compressors to better match the peaks and troughs of production demands.
The figures come thick and fast as Ebrahim reels off further energy-saving projects. Another £250,000 from fixing leaky pipes; landfill down to 3%; a £400 bonus by turning discarded polystyrene boxes used to supply Qashqai parts into a recycling revenue stream; and an £18,000 payback in nine months from filtrating oily water. "Small ideas but they all contribute to overall success with the Green Programme," he says.
The much hailed Green Programme translates into almost 60 global environmental targets, which are cascaded down to individual Nissan sites like Sunderland through themed objectives. Top-level targets range from pioneering electric vehicles to leading eco programmes for schools. Perhaps the defining achievement, though, is the launch of the Nissan Leaf. This electric car is the emission-free vehicle market's answer to the Ford Model T. Powered by a lithium ion battery and capable of 200 km on a charge, the Leaf rivals its petrol-powered competitors for performance spec. The model has won over the motoring critics and Nissan is banking on public opinion following suit. Mass production will start at Sunderland from 2013 and a sister plant to produce the car's lithium ion batteries has just been built on the site.
"It's going to happen," assures Ebrahim on the prospects of electric vehicles (EVs) rivalling the combustion engine. "Progress is inevitable. Otherwise we'd still be getting around by horse and cart." But there are considerable challenges ahead. Nissan wants a UK-wide network of charge points that leaves drivers never more than 40 km from a suitable socket. Current availability, according to the EV Network website, falls well short and would leave any Nissan Leaf owner who chose to attempt a trip from Birmingham to Hull in need of an enormous extension lead. Long charge times are another favourite put down among petrol heads. However, Nissan's 20-minute quick charge marks a significant bridgehead towards the age of the EV.
The arrival of the Leaf alongside a more traditional hatchback model at Sunderland will swell annual production volumes to well over the 500,000 mark from 2014. The demands of producing a car every 30 seconds will see a third shift launched on the site's second production line, ensuring 24-hour running, six days a week. The production schedules are not the only thing set for expansion, with 1,000 extra jobs planned. Ebrahim comments: "For shopfloor positions that's not a problem, but it's tough to find maintenance engineers." The Nissan director points to a white board where a diagram of the site's maintenance workforce is riddled with blanks. "They are holes we've been trying to fill for three years. People are getting older, people are retiring and people leave. Maintenance is a particular problem."
The drought is an inevitable consequence of a neglectful school system, says Ebrahim. "The whole philosophy has been getting as many GCSEs as you can and if you take an easier subject you get a better score as a school. It's meant few taking tougher subjects like maths and science." Nissan has hired 25 apprentices this year to try to satisfy in-house skills demands. But growing your own is no overnight solution. Ebrahim estimates a minimum of five years before an existing apprentice could fill one of his maintenance vacancies.
In the meantime, Nissan will import engineers from Europe as well as recruiting in the UK. Continuous improvement will also play a part in keeping operations on track. "In 2007 we made 340,000 cars with 420 maintenance employees.
Last year we made 490,000 cars with 360 maintenance people." All power to the Nissan Production Way, the company's global manufacturing system. But no matter how good your systems or CI programmes, these cannot shield you indefinitely from skills shortages. "Equipment is getting more technical and the new battery plant is incredibly technical," reflects Ebrahim. "Our people are going to need be at a higher skill level."
Nissan, like so many other UK manufacturers, may have mastered the challenge of recycling card, plastic and metal scrap. Learning to conserve that most precious natural resource of skilled labour will be an altogether sterner test.
Energy-saving secrets from Nissan Sunderland
1 5S is best
Energy-saving aspirations are the factory equivalent of vowing to get fit. They begin with bags of enthusiasm and investment in new kit, only to end in ignominy come the first spot of inclement weather. Think of 5S as a no-nonsense personal trainer. 5S doesn't allow for second rate excuses about being too busy: the system will embed energy-saving habits in your workforce's routine, according to Nissan. A monthly auditing system leaves no place to hide, with departments marked down for failing to recycle. Scores form part of an intra-factory 5S league, explains Ebrahim. "You don't want to let your peer group down. Everybody wants their team to be the best."
Giant wind turbines or biodigesters might steal the limelight when it comes to energy-saving projects. But smaller initiatives offer higher returns. Nissan has trimmed over £500,000 from operational costs by streamlining its compressed air use. Simply checking pipes for leaks, or tweaks to help you match supply with demand can bring big rewards. Factory lighting is another cash saver. Introducing smart lighting or energy-efficient bulbs can illuminate some major savings on energy bills.
3Make a plan
Creating a formal energy-saving plan will help focus your activities. And when you've made one then don't be tempted to leave it gathering dust in the boardroom. Nissan's Green Programme offers a comprehensive list of pledges from HQ on the company's environmental objectives and how it intends to deliver them. The blueprint is then filtered down to Nissan factories, managers and operators via related performance objectives. Ebrahim says: "We have a hoshin kanri objective set. The Green Programme will be on my objectives and cascaded down to my managers."
The materials recovery facility, affectionately known within Nissan as 'MuRF', transports materials from the factory floor and helps segregate them for recycling. The machine resembles a giant escalator, with waste items sorted mechanically and by operators. Nissan's system segregates card for bailing, polystyrene for compacting into giant bricks and other plastics for recycling. The system has helped cut landfill costs and recycling revenues cover the cost of manning the machine, Nissan says.
5 Team tactics
If you're energy inefficient, if nobody else can help, then it's time to call the E-team. Uniting top employees into a crack energy squad will help build momentum behind your efficiency programme, according to Nissan. Energy teams at Nissan are formed from engineering, maintenance and production. The units act both as a police force – ensuring departments don't exceed energy allowances – and as innovators, putting forward new ideas to cut bills.
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