As the UK heads for its second woman Prime Minister and challenging lie months ahead, today marks the 30th anniversary of Nissan Motor Company’s faith in the country.
Thirty years ago today, the first Bluebird car was driven off the production line at the Japanese firm’s Sunderland plant. In so doing, the Japanese company set the ball rolling for a new technological revolution.
A revolution that also saw the transformation shop-floor working practices and ethics
The company became the first Japanese company to start making cars in the UK, to be followed by Honda Motor Company And Toyota Motor Corporation. Then German car maker followed suit with it acquisition of Rover Group which led to the manufacture of iconic MINI cars at Oxford, coupled with its infrastructure plants at Hams Hall and Swindon. Later the Indian company Tata Motors acquired Jaguar and Land Rover and made a further transformation of the industry to the point that country is now one of the world’s leading major car producers.
One of the technologies that Nissan introduced was the use of robotic equipment to enforce new and consistent quality standards of welding precision, a move quickly followed throughout the whole of Europe.
Robots are now standard equipment for other processes besides spot welding, including inter-press handling, arc welding, self-piercing riveting, inspection, assembly and glazing.
Nissan's first Bluebird saloon to pass down the line was met by cheers of delight from workers and senior officials.
Heralded as a beacon for the North-East’s future economy, more than 20,000 Bluebirds were built in the first year. During the next decade, Nissan’s presence grew, with staff numbers increasing to make new models.
In December 1998, the two millionth car produced at the factory, a Micra, rolled off the production line.
The plant, officially opened by then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, later Lady Thatcher, now employs 6,700 people and previously became the first UK car factory to make more than 500,000 vehicles in a year.
The plant, which witnessed the introduction of many Japanese manufacturing and supply chain techniques (including Just-in-Time and TPM - Total Productive Maintenance), has now made 8.7 million vehicles across a number of different models, including Bluebird, Primera, Micra, Almera, Note, Qashqai, Juke and all-electric Leaf hatchback.
The site is also now manufacturing the Q30 for sister luxury marque Infiniti. This car will soon be joined by the QX30, with both primed to become the first premium models to be made art Sunderland and exported to the US and China.
Interestingly, Nissan from the outset spotted talented British managers to take charge of its new pioneering investment in a green-field facility that would become a benchmark for manufacturing efficiency, setting in train further moves by Japanese companies to establish manufacturing footholds in Europe.
It can also be said, that just as the Japanese managed to transform British attitudes to car manufacture, so the Ford Motor Company failed to harness British skills and as a result not only abondoned the UK as a car manufacturing location but topped this up with an abidaction of the manufacture of vans. General Motors is the only North American company to rely on the UK for the manufacture of cars and vans.
A common thread in all these Japanese plants has been the English language which all these companies have come to recognise as the universal language.
What is most remarkable is the way the Japanese, German and now Indian companies have managed to maintain equable labour relations and, by doing so, to avoid the sort of crippling strikes which played such a part in bringing the British-owned car industry to its knees.
The root of the problem was the British class system - born out of the 19th Century Industrial Revolution - under which shop-floor workers and management despised each other.
Trade union leaders, such as Ford's Ron Todd and British Leyland's Derek 'Red Robbo' Robinson, plugged into that worker-management resentment, most blatantly by lodging totally outrageous pay claims.
That made them 'gods' in the eyes of their members who were, at the same time, too short-sighted to see that higher wages had to be paid for, through increased prices for the cars they were making, thereby eroding their competitiveness.
Bad labour relations went hand-in-hand with slapdash attention to product quality: a further blow to competitiveness.
Nissan and Toyota each had the psychological advantage of a greenfield site start-up, devoid of any negative labour relations history.
From Day One it was made clear that, modelled on Japanese practice, there was no 'them and us' combative demarcation.
Because there was no existing workforce at Sunderland, Burneston or Deeside, the adoption of robots to carry out previous manual manufacturing operations, encountered no workforce opposition.
In any case union involvement in the new plants was meticulously defined and effectively limited, not least via above-average wage levels and the relative absence of alternative employment in the areas chosen by Nissan and Toyota.
They, between them, effectively created a precedent for Honda, BMW and eventually Tata who, admittedly, faced more challenging start-up conditions, on formerly all-British production sites.
They typically erected all-new factory buildings, allowing optimum-flow robotised production. But at Cowley and Coventry especially many existing employees were inherited, and they (and their union representatives) had to be inculcated into, for them, a new world of efficient 'disruption free' manufacturing.
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