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Building the Odyssey: Honda's Biggest Vehicle

One of Honda's philosophies is to build vehicles where they sell them and to provide vehicles that meet market demands. So now the company is bringing out an all-new minivan that's larger in every way than its previous model. And it built a new factory in Canada to produce the Odyssey. Here's a look inside.
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The '99 Odyssey features a unitized body that's built on a large cross section frame. The two are attached with seven underfloor cross members.

Curiously, Honda Motor Co., through its Honda of Canada Manufacturing operations (Alliston, Ontario), is building its biggest vehicle ever—in its smallest plant. The facility, designated Plant 2, which was built on the same 450 acres that the adjacent Plant 1 is sitting on in Alliston, began producing the all-new Odyssey minivan in mid-August 1998, with the "official" line-off occurring on September 30.

Plant 2 measures 76,259 m2; within the $300-million facility welding, painting, assembly, and final inspection are performed. When ramped up to full capacity, it will be capable of producing 120,000 units per year, with two-shift production. During the first year of operations, Honda marketing people anticipate a requirement of 60,000 units for the U.S. and from 10,000 to 12,000 for Canada. Although the launch of the 1998 Accord at the Marysville, OH, Honda of America Manufacturing plant is measurably the fastest launch of any modern North American vehicle, Dick Colliver, American Honda executive vice president, stresses that the Odyssey ramp-up will be "a slow launch" to "maintain the dependability, quality and reliability" that people have come to expect from Honda.

Some clever features not withstanding (like a back bench seat that folds down and into a rear compartment, thereby providing both a large cargo area and seating for four), it could be argued that a contemporary minivan is a contemporary mini-van is a...and therefore, the dependability, quality and reliability stand as an important differentiator in the market, so slow is the way to go if that's what it takes to get them.


The minivan market was invented by Chrysler 15 years ago, and Chrysler continues to be the market leader in that segment. Not only did the previous generation Honda Odyssey have comparatively small sales (according to Dick Colliver, executive vice president, American Honda, if they sell 60,000 of the new Odyssey, that will be a 100% increase over its predecessor's best), but the previous generation Odyssey—compared with the Chrysler Grand Caravan, Chevy Venture, Ford Windstar, and Toyota Sienna—was a comparatively small vehicle. Which is no longer the case.

The exterior dimensions for the 1999 Odyssey are:


Wheelbase (mm):

Each of those dimensions is not only much bigger than the '98 Odyssey, but they are in the same ballpark as the dimensions for the competitive full-size minivans.

There are two trim levels for the Odyssey, LX and EX (with the EX offering features like power for the dual sliding doors and a traction control system). Both are equipped with a 3.5-liter, 210-hp, 24-valve V-6 engine built in Honda's engine plant in Anna, OH.

On October 1, the rate of build was on the order of 120 to 125 per day; it will reach 250 units per day by December.

Or a simple, plausible, explanation of the slow ramp is that this is a new vehicle—being built nowhere else on the planet—in a new plant. What company wouldn't take its time? Atsuyoshi Hyogo, American Honda executive vice president, describes the Odyssey program as "one of the largest manufacturing challenges our company has ever faced."

Meeting the Challenge

Of course, this being Honda, there is a methodology in place to meet the challenge. One of the things that happened right after the minivan program was announced in December 1995 was that Honda associates from Alliston headed across the Pacific. Over 100 people made the trip to Japan, some of whom spent two years living and working there. The mission of all those associates was to provide input for the line layout and for equipment design.

To assure that there is experience in the build, of the 600 slots that will be available in Plant 2 to reach the full one-shift volume, 70% will be filled by people who have been working in Plant 1. (About Plant 1: it went into mass production in November 1986. There are 2,000 associates in the plant. It measures 123,093 m2. The annual volume is 170,000 units per year. Its product mix includes two Civic styles—3-door and 4-door [with the sedan accounting for about 70% of the annual volume]—and one Canada-only Acura model, the Civic platform-based 1.6EL.)


The 1999 Honda Odyssey is capable of handling seven people—more than you're likely to fit in any kind of comfort in even the biggest Acura going. This is the largest Honda being built. It is manufactured in Allison, Ontario—and only Alliston. There's no backup production. Of course given its size, it seems to be more well suited to the North American roads than those in Europe or Japan.

New Technology

Since this is Honda's newest plant, there were lessons from existing facilities taken into account. These led to some new technologies being implemented in Alliston. For example, in the Paint Shop (waterborne base coat is used), they have equipped a robot with a laser vision system; it is used to apply sealer on body panels. There is a ±5-mm sealer gun adjustment that's based on the feedback from the sensor. Among the benefits being realized from this approach is an increase in the accuracy of the sealer application, which leads to reduced waste. Also, ergonomic considerations were part of the plant setup; in this case, the robot is used to reach into the vehicle to apply sealer; this could be an uncomfortable task for people.

Although a major change in the assembly department is a piece of equipment devised by Honda Engineering called a "general welder," some other changes are worth noting. For example, the front door line is a U-shaped cell that is completely without conveyors. Instead, robots are used to transfer the doors-in-process through the cell. This compact arrangement allows the number of people to be minimized: just two are needed in the cell.

The general welder is something new in Honda. Everywhere else in the manufacturing organization there are conventional spot welding devices based on hard tooling used for body build. The new unit is based on 20 seven-axis robots that apply 137 welds to the Odyssey body. The body-in-white indexes into the station and the robots, both floor- and gantry-mounted, swing into action. The real benefit of this is down the road, when another vehicle is produced: The programmability of the robots will permit comparatively simple, cost-effective repositioning of the spots. (It is rumored that a full-size sport utility vehicle will join the Odyssey in Alliston, so this weld station's capabilities would be most beneficial.)


The plant was designed using both the best of existing ideas within Honda, as well as new ideas. Among the new are a robot-based general welder that features 20 robots in place of conventional hard automation and the use of quality stations within the assembly line to assure that any problems are caught in process and repaired on the spot.

On the Line

In the trim and final assembly area (called "Assembly Frame") the lines are laid out so that there are two overlapping horse shoes. Looked at from above, the sequence (there are 257 processes) would begin at the top of the right side of the left-hand horse shoe (which bifurcates the right-hand horse shoe). So the vehicles go down the right leg of the first U, then around and up. Then they're transferred to the top left side of the other U, down, around and out. The reason why this configuration is used is both to minimize space requirements as well as to facilitate the positioning of the car carriers at the head of the line.

To ease the tasks of the line workers, a number of measures are taken. For example, there are portions of the line where the workers stand that move along with the assembly line. This is not a setup like that, say, at Saturn, where there are separate platforms that the workers ride on. Rather, this is literally a section of the same line that's transferring cars that is meant for the assembly line personnel. (Once they've arrived at the end of their work area, they simply walk back to the start.) Also, there are more assist devices used to manipulate large pieces (e.g., the instrument panel) in Plant 2 than there are in Plant 1: 25 versus 14. (Of course, the assemblies in Plant 2 are bigger than those that go into a Civic.)


To assure that there is quality, they are using a system that's new to Honda. It's called the "Manufacturing Quality Guarantee System." Essentially, there are 10 areas within the line where there are inspection and repair areas. These Manufacturing Quality sites are staffed by Manufacturing Quality people, not line associates. Their task is to inspect particular items at each station and to do any required repairs right away. Consequently, good assemblies are passed along the line. An objective is to minimize any required repair at the end of the line.

Most all of the containers that are used to bring in material from suppliers are in returnable containers. Crown tow vehicles and Caterpillar forklifts are continually zipping through the plant, bringing stock to line-side location. To help facilitate handling parts (there are approximately 200 suppliers for the Odyssey), instead of having a central receiving area, as is the case in Plant 1, there are three Materials Service areas in the plant (or four, as one area is partitioned into two).

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