Hear the name Honda, and the words Made in the USA don’t exactly come to mind. Yet the Japanese juggernaut builds much of its ATV right here in the States. The American market dominates global ATV sales, so perhaps it’s no surprise that Honda has a base of operations in the U.S. Big Red invited MotoUSA to its plant in Timmonsville, South Carolina for a closer look at the ATV manufacturing process.
The South Carolina factory has been building Honda ATV, like the Fourtraxx Foreman sport-utility quad we were going to test ride the very next day, ever since its 1998 creation (Read our 2012 Honda Foreman First Ride). Upon our arrival, production at the 536,000 square-foot facility stopped, as factory workers and project developers celebrated the first official production 2012 Foreman to roll off the assembly line.
Located in South Carolina, the Honda Timmonsville Plant can roll an ATV off the line every 60 seconds.
This Foreman ATV was greeted with particular pride by Honda personnel, as it is the first full redesign spearheaded by the company’s American R&D department. Known internally as the HR0 project, the R&D effort was based out of Ohio. But part of product development takes place at Timmonsville, where a 1.4-mile test track allows riders to refine the eventual production model. Once the lineoff celebration was disbanded, it was back to work. The assembly line went back into full production mode and our step-by-step guide to ATV production began.
It is a mistake to assume the Timmonsville plant is simply an ATV assembly point for Honda parts. The plant does a surprising amount of fabrication on site including engine casting, plastic injection molding and parts machining.
The engine cases and cylinder heads are made by sand core die cast method on site. We watched as the molten aluminum, heated to more than 1400 degrees Fahrenheit, was poured out of a huge crucible into the dies. Once cast the extruded engine cases and cylinder heads are thoroughly cleaned and then undergo a series of milling processes. While not cast on site, the crankshaft goes through a similar milling process. While machined almost entirely by robotic inputs, a human touch still delivers final inspection and a couple of pinging strokes from a copper hammer, which complete the crankshaft assembly before moving on to the engine line.
Honda workers building ATV powerplants on the Timmonsville engine line. The engine cases are cast and milled on site, with parts like the crankshaft also milled on location.
A unique serial number is engraved on the case upon entering the engine line. From there a series of workers get the powerplant built up into running order one piece at a time. The engine line is just one of a number of smaller feeder assembly stations before the final assembly line, which spits out a fully-functional ATV every 60 seconds.
The Timmonsville plant also manufactures much of the bodywork components for its ATV via plastic injection molding process. Fenders and other plastic bodywork are produced on site in large molds, with technicians taking the large presses offline to replace model-specific dies. The fuel tank is also produced in-house, trimmed and inspected by hand.
ATV wheels are yet another component manufactured at Timmonsville. Large aluminum sheets are stamped out into slender rectangles, the new pieces rolled and welded into a raw cylindrical wheel shape. Large presses further refine the shape of the wheels, while a MIG weld completes the manufacturing process. The wheels are then sent away for anodizing and paint.
Many frame components are welded on site, by both robotic and human means. It was surprising and comforting to see actual men in welder masks torching on a metal frame. Yes, people still actually make stuff! The frame and other
Honda workers weld frame components (top). The final assembly line sees the ATV come together in short order, with a short test route allowing techs to shakedown the new units baseline functionality.
metallic components leave the welding and painting area on to their respective entry points on the assembly process. They join small side assembly stations that produce components like the steering column. Metal racks and mounting brackets are fitted to fenders, which are in turn collected together with the fuel tank and tire-shod wheels, the package of components shuttled off to one of the last stations on the final assembly line.
Final assembly begins with the engine dropping into the frame, the mated pieces then hoisted onto the final line. From here the rolling chassis comes together in remarkably short order, the line methodically rolling on at its 60-second unit pace. Brake rotors make their appearance, as well the front suspension and mufflers. Blink and you’ll miss the fluids getting added, along with the fuel tank and fenders. Four wheels are ratcheted on with the pleasing sound of pneumatic air impact guns. Zip, Zip, Zip, Zip… (It’s not an unfamiliar sound for the region, smack dab in the middle of NASCAR country, with many of the factory workers hailing from nearby Darlington.)
The full rolling chassis complete, a seat is tossed on the ATV, the engine promptly started and then rolled onto a nearby dyno. There a tech bangs through the gears – a large metal shield rising up behind the dyno to collect the noxious fumes. Satisfied with the brief engine and transmission test, the tech rolls off the dyno while a fellow associate gets the next model fired up and ready to roll.
Post dyno, it’s time to take a spin on the indoor test track. A modest straight lets the tech open up the throttle and squeeze the brakes. Off-set rumble strips give a basic shakedown of suspension, followed by a three-point turn to check steering and engage the reverse gear.
From there the quad heads off for final inspection. If it passes muster, the unit gets crated and prepped for shipping. If there is any defect or suspicions, the model is pulled and sent to a side station, where techs resolve the issue and ensure it is isolated, not a result of a flaw in the assembly process. Unrelenting in its flow, the line continues to produce ATV after ATV for the global market. It is an impressive display of mass production efficiency.
The efficiency extends to Honda’s production wastes. Milling scraps, both metal and plastic, are reused or recycled. Meanwhile factory waste water is treated on site. Honda PR folks are eager to note the South Carolina plant preserves 625 acres of its property as WAIT certified (Wildlife and Industry Together) – a program encouraging Carolina-based companies to foster onsite natural habitat for wildlife.
Visiting the Timmonsville plant, a couple things stood out. First being the emphasis on safety. The company enjoys a stellar record, claiming more than four million hours with no lost time. We were admonished to mind the traffic signals while walking through the plant, as large platforms of parts are constantly being shuttled throughout the facility.
Honda associates celebrated the first production 2012 Foreman to roll off the Timmonsville plant assembly line.
Second, although residing deep in the South, the Timmonsville plant operates in the Japanese way. This means a heavy emphasis on the team group dynamic. It’s a spirit that stretches into the administrative offices as well. Even the plant President, Katsumi Fujimoto, sits at an open table in the corner of a giant bullpen office – epitomizing the one team approach. The company also encourages feedback from line workers on how to improve the production efficiency – the company claiming millions of dollars worth of savings based directly off such team input.
Finally, as we chatted with a handful of random factory workers at the lineoff ceremony, there seemed a genuine sense of pride in the associates’ work. Honda is a Japanese company, without question, but at the Timmonsville plant American workers are making a high-quality product for the American market.