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For Honda, NSX Is More Than Image

Automaker uses new super car to experiment with manufacturing 

By Bill Koenig
Senior Editor

MARYSVILLE, OH – Honda Motor Co.’s new Acura NSX super car has had plenty of flash.

The company hired Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld in 2012 to appear in a television ad airing during that year’s Super Bowl football game to promote how the NSX – originally sold from 1990 to 2005 -- was coming back. The new NSX also is intended to help improve the image of the company’s Acura luxury brand.

The NSX, though, is more than flash and image. Honda is using the model to experiment with manufacturing techniques.

The new NSX embraces lightweight materials such as aluminum and carbon fiber. That means addressing how to join different materials without causing galvanic corrosion.

For example, the NSX’s A-pillar in the front of the passenger compartment was originally to be aluminum, like much of the body.

However, the design was tweaked to make the A-pillar out of ultra-high-strength steel instead. Less steel is needed while providing sufficient strength. That meant the A-pillar could be much thinner, giving the driver more visibility. To join the pillar to the aluminum body, a coating is used to prevent the steel and aluminum from actually touching.

NSX test cars

More broadly, Honda also in many instances started from scratch when devising manufacturing techniques. The Tokyo-based automaker enjoys a reputation for quality of its mass-market models. But engineers decided mass-market production techniques would not automatically carry over to low-volume NSX output.

“Not only is this vehicle important to the Acura brand, it’s important to Honda Motor Co. as a whole,” said Clement D’Souza, the chief engineer for the NSX project.

He likened the effort and time spent on the new super car to Honda’s involvement in auto racing.

“We race to learn and that spreads to our production vehicles,” he said. With the new manufacturing systems set up for the NSX, “It gives us a smaller volume to prove it out,” D’Souza said.

More than four years after Honda announced the new NSX, the company conducted briefings last week for reporters at its Performance Manufacturing Center (PMC), which has been assembling prototype NSX cars for testing. The facility is part of Honda’s Marysville, OH, complex of factories. The center is scheduled to begin regular production of the new model by the end of April, with the first deliveries to customers occurring shortly thereafter.

“This is really inherent in Honda’s DNA,” said Joe Langley, an auto analyst with IHS Automotive, who attended one of the briefings. “They’re going to take all the lessons learned here and apply them to a future Accord. It allows them to experiment with materials and other things.”

Honda first went public with the return of the NSX at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January 2012. The original NSX, like the new model, had an aluminum body.

Since the original ended production more than a decade ago, cutting weight from vehicles has become a major priority for the auto industry. US vehicle fleets must average 54.5 miles per gallon (23 kilometers per liter) by 2025. Lighter materials are part of the formula automakers are using to improve the fuel efficiency of their models.

The new NSX also is a gasoline-electric hybrid, with a twin-turbo V-6 engine and two electric motors. Honda says the NSX will have 500 horsepower and a top speed of 191 miles (307 kilometers) per hour. The V-6 engines are hand built at the automaker’s engine factory in nearby Anna, OH.

NSX engine installation

The new NSX also had one major manufacturing change from its predecessor. Honda opted to build the new version at Marysville. The original had been built in Japan. A building at the Marysville complex was gutted and expanded. Thus was born the Performance Manufacturing Center, which about 100 employees.

Inside, the center looks like a cross between a small factory and a large shop for a race team. To stress how everybody works for one unit, the paint shop has glass walls, making it easy to watch NSX cars receiving as many as 11 coats of paint. Each NSX receives about four gallons (15 liters) of paint.

The idea was to make the paint shop a main part of any plant tour by customers and vendors.

In the center of the building, also inside glass walls, is what’s called the quality confirmation center. There is one large CMM (accurate to within 30 microns) and two Romer portable CMMs, each accurate to within 50 microns. The quality operation is in the middle of the facility because the company is emphasizing building everything to specification the first time.

Experienced Team
The key manufacturing person on the project is D’Souza, who recruited other key manufacturing personnel with whom he had worked with previously inside Honda. Members of that team have anywhere from 15 to 32 years of experience with the automaker.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be working on a super car,” D’Souza said.

D’Souza had been a project leader on the 2008 Accord and 2012 CR-V crossover. He was offered the chance to work on either the NSX or the company’s HondaJet, the company’s business aircraft. D’Souza originally joined Honda believing he’d work there for a few years before going into aerospace. But after more than two decades with the automaker he opted for the NSX.

The NSX manufacturing team studied makers of other supercars, such as Ferrari, Lamborghini and Aston Martin, as part of devising its own manufacturing setup, which mixes advanced technology and hand building. Honda has applied for 12 patents related to NSX manufacturing.

Honda opted to hand build engines for the car. Each NSX V-6 takes five to six hours to construct. The engines are bench tested and run in on dynamometers to the  equivalent of 150 miles (240 km) of city and highway driving so each NSX is “track ready” when delivered to customers.

“This is very first time we’ve broken in an engine for our passenger car program,” said Dave Jessen, new model manager at the Anna factory. Honda had previously done so for engines in its racing programs.

New Casting Process
The manufacturing setup also includes using ablation casting, also at the Anna engine plant, to make parts, which is part traditional casting (pouring molten metal into a sand mold) coupled with spraying water to harden the metal rapidly.

While sand molds are still used, they’re held together with a water-soluble binder. The process was co-developed by Honda and Alotech Inc. (Goldston, NC). According to Honda, this is the first automotive application of the process. The process is used to produce six nodes within the NSX’s space frame. The nodes serve as mounting points for the NSX’s suspension and powertrain.

Robot at Honda's Performance Manufacturing Center
 The frame is produced using eight welding robots which apply 860 MIG welds. Rotisserie-style fixtures turn the frame during welding to assist the robots. The robots “dance around this car in a specific pattern,” Chuck Henkel, weld engineering leader, said during a tour of the NSX manufacturing center.

During welding, parts are visually inspected and measured to see they meet specifications.

D’Souza’s team also devised a system where the car would be built from “the inside out,” with body panels the last parts installed on the NSX. According to the company, about 14 hours are spent by manufacturing technicians (Honda’s job title) assembling the powertrain, suspension, electronics and body panels.

In the paint area, body panels are painted separately from the frame. The process includes applying zirconium as a primer for the space frame. The automaker says the process reduces waste in the paining process, resulting in no sludge and the plant being “landfill free.”

Later, after the paint has dried, employees wear sheepskin gloves when touching body panels to avoid micro scratches. There are also testing procedures once the cars are assembled.

The reason for all this care is that the NSX is intended to be the Acura brand’s flagship car – an attraction for customers, even if they just look at it in a showroom. The NSX has a starting price of $156,000 and a version with options promoted on Acura’s website is at $168,400.

As a result, much of the focus for the manufacturing team is to build the NSX without flaws. NSX buyers will expect higher quality given the money they’ll be paying and the super car competitors available.

“My goal for the PMC is to put parts on once and be done,” said Jeff Henault, NSX assembly team leader, referring to the Performance Manufacturing Center.

Honda Motor Co. photos

Published Date : 3/17/2016

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