Thursday, 4 December 2014

Nissan lifts some wraps off UK battery plant

Nissan’s ultra-clean battery plant, which been ‘off limits’ to prying eyes for so long, has opened its doors for the first time.

The ‘high tech’ facility – one of only three of its type in the world – has remained a closely guarded secret since it began making batteries for the Leaf hatchback two years ago. The Leaf is made at the adjacent plant of Nissan Manufacturing UK in Sunderland, UK.

Nissan has been so determined to shield its £200 million investment from rivals like Toyota, Honda or even Ford that it has not allowed anyone other than its own employees inside until this week.

It is curious, but no doubt purely coincidental, that within days of Daimler AG unveiling plans to extend its own lithium-ion battery unit in Germany, Nissan should decide to pull the wraps off its own prize possession in the UK.

At the nerve centre is a clean room more like an intensive care ward than a car component plant. Clean rooms are commonplace in electronic plants where the technology was first developed, but relatively rare in the automotive world, until now. However, as battery production widens ahead of wider use of electric vehicles there will undoubtedly be more of them. In Nissan’s clean room the temperature held at a constant 20°C and every effort is made to exclude dust, dirt and moisture.

Employees, who enter through air locks, must wear masks, gowns and white boots, rather than the trademark battleship grey fatigues sported by everyone from shop floor workers to management in the main plant where Nissan’s Qashqai, Juke, Note and all-electric Leaf are manufactured. Mobile phones remain in lockers.

Secrecy does however, remain. Nissan executives refuse to reveal how many robots are employed in the plant, name the robot vendor or reveal whether the machines are five-axis or six; surely not earth-shattering secrets - but that's how the automotive industry.

Jim Wilkinson, the plant manager, spent six months in Japan taking in the finer details of producing electric batteries the Nissan way, before embarking on the new Sunderland facility, which is capable of producing 62,000 units a year.

According to Nissan, some £420 million has been invested in the UK in Leaf production and the battery plant which support 500 jobs at Nissan and 2,000 in the UK supply chain.

However, there is no sign yet of the plant getting close to its capacity as electric cars at present remain a rare sight on UK roads as Nissan’s sales of electric cars, for example, along with others remain modest.

Nissan, like a number of Japanese companies trialling ‘new’ technologies, insists it is in it for the long haul. Few however can rival the commitment that Mazda Motor Corporation has given the Wankel engine, first introduced seriously into passenger cars by NSU in 1965 at the Frankfurt Motor Show. Mazda claims it is still working on an upgraded version of the fuel-thirsty unit that appeared in the RX-8. Rolls-Royce built a "cottage loaf" diesel for battle tanks but shelved the idea as unrealistic.

Nissan has certainly emphatically denied recent rumours its Sunderland battery plant might be at risk of closure.

"Innovation is at the centre of Nissan's brand. We are totally committed to the electric vehicle market and we have no plans to change our investment strategy at Sunderland," emphasised Jean-Pierre Diernaz, electric vehicle director at Nissan Europe.

Diernaz has been praised by Nissan for increasing the company’s share of the electric passenger car market in Europe, while inside the plant Wilkinson is equally proud of the processes, especially a fully-automated part of the production line. Both might argue that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

Diernaz certainly echoes the enthusiasm of his chief, Carlos Ghosn, Nissan-Renault Alliance chief executive. Ghosn, a man of vision, is convinced that being at the vanguard of electric car and battery manufacture will help the Nissan brand to be regarded widely as innovative and a trend-setting. His strategy has been described as bold and the Sunderland facility is certainly at the heart of his dream. Diernaz's enthusiasm for the technology does not however extend to revealing seemingly trivial information, such as how many robots are used in battery production!

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