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Nissan’s automation game at Oppama plant

S Ronendra Singh | Updated on January 10, 2018 Published on September 21, 2017

Auto mode Automation will play a bigger role in the coming years. A view of Nissan’s Oppama plant

The facility in Japan is all about robots and automated guided vehicles

Robots have been an integral part of Japan’s landscape for many years. The country’s love for these remarkable machines extends from applications in leisure activities to the more serious industrial arena.

Small wonder then that Japan is truly the centre of gravity for robots in terms of optimal output and consumption worldwide. According to a host of research reports, it employs over 2.5 lakh industrial robots, a number that is estimated to jump four fold to over a million in the next 15 years. In the process, the revenue from the robots market could reach $70 billion by 2025.

The manufacturing sector is one of the key users of robots with automobiles, in particular, leading the fray. They are particularly useful in applications where access is a challenge or there is a high element of risk. Some typical examples include work related to paint shops, die-casting and welding operations.

So much for this background information. Reality is a different ballgame altogether as evident from a visit to Nissan Motor’s Oppama plant in Yokosuka that was set up in 1961. This facility, with a capacity of 2.4 lakh units annually, produces a range of models including the electric car Leaf, Note e-Power, Juke and Cube.

Highly skilled robots

The robots at Oppama weld the stamped steel panels into a vehicle body. According to Nissan, this is the most automated area of all operations where modern machines assure extremely high accuracy skills.

The assembled body is then washed thoroughly to remove any trace of dirt, dust or other foreign materials before it moves further on to a paint booth. Remember, it is a complete show managed by robots where human intervention is minimal. For the record, there are 1,249 direct employees of which women make up a mere 54. Interestingly, the robots at Oppama pick up even small nuts and bolts.

The plant also uses automated guided vehicles (AGVs), which are programmed vehicles. They move around with the help of magnetic strips on the floor, which help in changing paths or stopping automatically when an object comes in their way. “There are 500 AGVs for different processes at the Oppama factory,” says Tooru Takahashi, Vice-President and General Manager, Oppama Plant. “We use the maximum number when it comes to moving parts and loading/unloading them.”

The AGVs debuted here in 2005 and a group company within Nissan has created them to meet its requirements. Takahashi says that the plant is 100 per cent automated — the paint and body shop as well as assembly lines. “Human intervention is only required in the final roll out of a vehicle from the plant,” he says. Even this will stop once autonomous cars enter the picture.

What is even more remarkable is that there have been no accidents or breakdowns thus far, which only reinforces the fact that automation will play a bigger role in the coming years. The oils used in gears are checked regularly while servicing is top priority too. “Internet of Things and Big Data will be used for future improvement to ensure that there is no breakdown happening at all,” says Takahashi.

Indian scenario

Nissan, he adds, uses similar systems and robots across its factories worldwide, though it is selective in the case of India where the ratio of people is higher than robots. This is understandable from the viewpoint of employment pressures and the need for companies to fulfill the criterion of jobs in MoUs signed with individual State governments.

How long all this will last is the million dollar question. A recent report by Nasscom, Ficci and EY titled ‘Future of jobs in India’, states, “With robotics being increasingly adopted in the sector, repetitive jobs roles such as painting and welding are being threatened.”

The silver lining in the cloud, though, is that “job roles in robotics programming and maintenance will be more in demand”. It will be interesting to see how all this pans out in the coming years even as India struggles to meet the growing challenges of creating jobs and coping with the reality of automation in plants.

The writer was recently in Japan at the invitation of Nissan Motor Co.

Published on September 21, 2017
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