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The Re-Birth of the Gold Wing

The massive Honda Gold Wing motorcycle has more parts than a Honda Civic automobile, so the same attention that Honda designers, engineers, and production personnel pay to efficiencies in car-building has been paid to this two-wheeler.
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Why? Why is there a picture of a motorcycle on the cover ofAutomotive Manufacturing & Production? Are there so few new and interesting cars out there that we had to shop around for other kinds of vehicles to display prominently on our cover? Have we forgotten that the mission ofAM&P is primarily to cover the ongoing revolution in the industry that builds four-wheeled vehicles? Have we simply taken leave of our senses? The answers are: no, no and er...let’s not go there.

There are many reasons why there is a motorcycle on our cover. First, it is a motorcycle that is equal to many cars in its manufacturing complexity. Second, it is designed and built by one of the most innovative car companies in the world. Third, the manufacturing concepts being used to build the Honda Gold Wing can and are being used in auto manufacturing. And fourth, we thought it would be really cool to have a motorcycle on the cover.

A Little History, Please
From the beginning of its life in 1975, the Gold Wing was designed to be something special. Powered by an innovative 999-cc liquid-cooled horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine, it was unlike anything else on the road at the time. Americans yearning for the open road and the wind in their hair bought ’em up. In fact, so many Americans bought the Gold Wing that by 1979 80% of all its production was being sold in North America. So, following its philosophy of building products where they are sold, Honda decided to build a plant in the United States to produce motorcycles.

The Marysville Motorcycle Plant (MMP) began production of a simple dirt bike in September 1979. But within a year, the associates at the Marysville, OH, facility had moved up to assembling the top-of-the-line Gold Wing. MMP became and remains the exclusive producer of the Gold Wing.


1975—The original Gold Wing debuts. It is equipped with a four-cylinder, 999-cc engine.1980—Honda introduces the Interstate, the first Gold Wing factory equipped with fairing, trunk and saddlebags. Engine capacity is increased to 1085-cc.1980—The Marysville Motorcycle Plant begins building the Gold Wing in May 1980.
1985—The unfaired version of the Gold Wing is dropped. The bike is now unequivocally a touring machine.1988—A six-cylinder engine replaces the four and the capacity climbs to 1520-cc.2001—The first major re-design since 1988. The Gold Wing gets an even more powerful engine (1832 cc) and an aluminum frame.

Over the years, Honda kept its finger on the pulse of its customer base and changed the Gold Wing accordingly. People were using the machines mainly for long-distance touring, so it was optimized for that purpose. Aerodynamic fairings, saddlebags and a trunk became standard equipment. The wheelbase was lengthened to provide more room for the pilot and the passenger, the engine was tuned to favor torque over horsepower, and the bike got bigger and bigger. The just-introduced Gold Wing is no exception to this expansion.

With a new 1832-cc six-cylinder engine, room for two amply proportioned riders, and a dry weight of 799 lb., the all-new Gold Wing has become the 800-pound gorilla that can do whatever it wants.

Tabula Rasa
The design work for the new Gold Wing began in early 1996 in Japan. But for three years prior to that, the program manager, or, in Honda-speak, the Large Project Leader (LPL), Masanori Aoki, lived in the U.S., attended motorcycle rallies, and spent long hours in the saddle of a Gold Wing. Those experiences combined with customer interviews and information from 23,000 owner surveys gave the Gold Wing design team the basis they needed for a clean-sheet redesign of their touring icon.

The bottom line from all of the research was that customers wanted more performance and agility. To achieve its customers’ desires, the team focused on making a lighter, more rigid body and a more powerful engine.

While the Gold Wing design team was pondering how to make a better bike, Honda’s manufacturing gurus were trying to figure out how to make a more efficient plant. In the end, they both achieved their goals.

MMP Unbound
One of the challenges that Honda faced as it reviewed its manufacturing facilities around the world, was how to configure each plant for the flexibility necessary to meet the ever-changing demands of its customers. That is, how do you make products as complex as the Gold Wing, which has as many parts as a Civic automobile, on the same line as a much simpler motorcycle without losing efficiency?

The answer was a redesign of the main assembly line so as to keep the process flow among different models as common as possible. Differences in assembly time, which can be quite significant, are handled by off-line sub-assembly areas and modularization.

In the past, the process cycle time for the Gold Wing was so much longer than anything else that MMP made that two simpler motorcycles would come down the line between each Gold Wing to give the assembly associates a chance to catch up. Now, because of the off line subassembly of major component modules including the fairing, the trunk and saddlebags, and the front and rear suspensions and wheels, Gold Wings run down the line in lots of 20 each. When another model motorcycle is being built, associates have time to do their process on that bike plus complete subassembly work for the next 20 Gold Wings.

Another major theme that Honda is pursuing is the synchronous production of vehicles and engines in the same facilities. MMP is the first Honda plant to institute this theme in North America. (Honda’s newest auto plant, which is currently under construction in Alabama, will also feature the synchronous production of vehicles and engines.)

All Gold Wing engines used to be built at Honda’s Anna Engine Plant (AEP), which is about an hour away from MMP. But last February, engine assembly operations were moved to MMP.

According to Dane Espenschied, Assistant Vice President and Plant Manager at MMP, the move has led to a number of efficiencies. In the past, MMP might have as many as 400 completed engines waiting to be installed into Gold Wings and taking up lots of precious space in the small plant. Now there is no inventory: The engine line builds only as many engines as it needs for that day’s production. As Espenschied points out, “No process inventory means no idle investment,” which creates the opportunity to use those funds elsewhere. It also means the space that all of those engines previously occupied can be utilized for value-added processes. Significantly, no new floor space was added to MMP in the changeover to its new production system. The entire area needed for the engine and subassembly lines was recycled from other uses.

Another advantage of synchronous production is the reduction of lot size. Prior to the implementation of the new system, Gold Wings were built in lots of 60. Today they are built in lots of 20 and MMP’s goal is to reduce that even further. The increased flexibility gained from the smaller lot sizes will become increasingly more important in the future as MMP brings on more new models. In fact, it is already paying dividends. In February, 2001, MMP begins production of an all-new model, the VTX, which will also be made using synchronous production methods. The introduction of two major new models within four months is hard to imagine under the old manufacturing system.

The Trials and Tribulations of Working with Aluminum
Perhaps the biggest change between the old and new Gold Wings is the frame. Since its inception, the bike had been built around a welded steel frame. The 2001 Gold Wing is different. The motorcycle’s designers chose aluminum for the frame material because of its lower weight and greater rigidity—which translates into a sportier riding feeling for the customer. Great for the customer, not so great for the MMP associates who had never welded aluminum before. So, MMP’s welders flew off to Honda’s big motorcycle plant in Hamamatsu, Japan, and took a crash course in the art of welding aluminum.


For the new Gold Wing's frame, Honda switched from steel to aluminum. Weld shop associates had to learn new more precise techniques to weld the less-forgiving material.

They learned that aluminum is a completely different beast than the steel they were used to working with. Aluminum transfers the heat from welding to other parts of the frame much more quickly than steel does—leading to the potential for greater distortion. At the same time, aluminum has to be kept to a tighter tolerance since it doesn’t bend and flex the way steel does. In addition to these challenges, much of the easily scratched aluminum was going to be visible on the finished bike, unlike the steel frame that had been covered by plastic cladding, so more care had to be taken not to blemish the metal in any way. Faced by all of this, one would forgive the weld department if they decided to take early retirement packages. Instead, they came up with ideas that made the challenges manageable.

The sequence in which frame parts are welded together was planned so that the potential for distortion is reduced as much as possible. To prevent scratching parts, associates suggested making parts holders out of hardwood. The idea of wood in the weld shop did not go over very well with the plant’s management at first, but after testing, hardwood was actually found to outperform the heat-resistant plastics the managers had in mind. As for the welds themselves, according to Steve Powell, MMP’s assistant plant manager, “The angle at which you apply the weld makes a big difference in appearance.” To avoid unsightly weld lines, the weld shop developed adjustable counterbalanced fixtures that allow associates of all heights to weld the frames at the optimum angle for each type of weld. And in keeping with MMP’s theme of flexible manufacturing, all of the weld fixtures are mobile and the electrical cabling is overhead. If the weld shop needs to be rearranged for higher production or new models, it can be done quickly. Powell observes, “We could probably move this whole shop out of here in a day.”

In the paint shop, modifications also had to be made for the aluminum frames. All of MMP’s steel frames are painted using low-emission, powder coat paint processes, but to powder coat aluminum a new material had to be developed. Honda came up with a material that gives them the adhesion they need and meets the appearance, protection and durability standards necessary for a class A exposed surface, which Powell describes as “zero tolerance for any defect.”

Fit to be Tied, or, the Acura of Motorcycles
Second only to performance and handling, superior fit-and-finish was a goal of the Gold Wing team. When customers are in the market for a top-of-the-line motorcycle that costs as much as a well-equipped car, they can be pretty picky. In fact, Dane Espenschied comments, “We believe the Gold Wing customers’ expectations exceed those of a luxury car buyer.”


Honda has streamlined its motorcycle assembly line by building large modules, like this rear wheel and swingarm, in off-line assembly areas. This allows Honda to efficiently build machines of varying complexity on the same line.

With this in mind, the folks at MMP set out to anticipate every potential fit-and-finish gripe and to eliminate them. (The gripes that is, not the customers.) To do this they established a “Fit Team,” a group of associates whose job it is to ensure the best fit-and-finish possible, especially on the items visible to the customer.

After test builds, the Fit Team would measure components for gaps and flushness. If their standards were not met, they had to work with the plant or suppliers or even the engineer who originally designed the part to develop a solution. During the off-line test build events, between 30% and 40% of the problems found came from the Fit Team. Their job was made harder by the fact that in many areas tolerances were cut in half, giving the new Gold Wing significantly better fit-and-finish than its predecessor.

MMP used the higher quality standards of the new Gold Wing to re-emphasize its Quality in Process, or QIP, program. QIP is essentially a system of checks throughout the manufacturing process designed to catch and remedy problems early. The key advantage of QIP is the reduction of the number of completed bikes that have to be largely disassembled to make a repair. The repair is easier on-line, and feedback to the area that is the source of the problem is quicker.

Power to the People
Espenschied emphasizes a final point that often gets lost among the technical details of making a complex new vehicle: The effect on the people who build them. He says that MMP used the new Gold Wing as “an opportunity to revitalize our workforce.” Beyond the fact that line associates had significant input into how the bike would be manufactured, Espenschied thinks that improvements in the plant that have made it more agile and competitive have led to a more competitive attitude among its associates. Since the massive touring bike is essentially hand-built, this renewed dedication to top quality could turn out to be the Gold Wing’s greatest advantage in the marketplace.