Nestled into the plains of Normal, Illinois and about the size of a small planet, Mitsubishi Motors North America’s factory will build about 70,000 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport models this year. That much I knew. What I didn’t realize was how much was really going on at the old Diamond-Star plant, or how much work MMNA put into making sure things are done right.
My tour began a few hours earlier as I drove out from Chicago early that Friday morning. The traffic was relatively light on I-55, and the AWD system on the 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport I was driving made short work of whatever snow and ice was on the road. At a tick over 70 MPH over the bitterly cold, two hour long drive, the Outlander gave back 25.8 MPG, according to its trip computer.
Once I got to Normal, IL, it was easy enough to find the MMNA factory. As I said, it’s the size of a planet, and seemed almost impossibly large- even knowing, as I did, that the plant pushed out nearly a quarter of a million cars per year back in the heyday of the Mitsubishi Eclipse/Eagle Talon twins. In the parking lot, I was greeted by a number of iMiEV electric cars …
… which served to let me know both that I was in the right place, and that Mitsubishi’s (and, indeed, Normal’s) commitment to EVs is a real thing.
Once inside, I met with Mitsubishi North America’s COO Jerry Berwanger. Berwanger is a gear head of the first order. He had more than 20 years’ experience at Ford before coming to sit in the big chair at Mitsubishi, and is capable of talking about his show-winning custom Harley-Davidsons, his Plymouth-powered “rat rod” pickup, his goals for the MMNA factory, and Mitsubishi’s excellent relationship with the UAW with equal knowledge, equal pride, and equal excitement.
“We’re the only transplant (foreign manufacturer) in the US that has a deal with the UAW,” says Jerry, as he pours me a coffee. “Mercedes doesn’t have one. BMW, Nissan, none of them.”
“Doesn’t that make it harder for you? Like, if GM or Ford does something the UAW doesn’t like, would your guys strike, as well?” I asked, like a good little conservabot.
“We have a no strike clause in our agreement with them,” he said.
“How’d you manage that?” I asked.
“We have a no layoffs clause, as well.”
I was floored. GM, Ford, Chrysler- all the big automakers let thousands upon thousands of workers go in the 90s and 00s, even before the crash in 2009. The idea that a factory which had, at one point, churned out 250,000 cars per year was carrying the same staff now, at a bit under 70,000, blew my mind. “How do you manage that?”
“It wasn’t easy,” he said.
I suddenly remembered reading about workers doing community service in the area, cleaning up the factory, planting trees, etc. It was a neat image, and the idea that Mitsubishi’s fate in North America was tied to its workers’ that directly gave me all sorts of warm and fuzzy feelings.
After a bit more small talk, we headed down to the factory floor. Picture-taking was a no-no, but if you’ve ever seen an episode of How It’s Made, you’ll have a good sense of what it looked like in the Mitsu factory. Except, you know, a thousand times bigger and louder.
Our first stop was a plastic molding station, where the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport’s plastic bumpers and fenders are made. The machines press plastic pellets into a mould under tremendous pressures, and the parts are then trimmed and checked for compliance. If they pass, they go on a cart to be picked later in the assembly process. If they don’t, they get chopped up, and the plastic bits get used again in another part.
Berwanger explains that, in most factories, the plastic parts are shipped in from a supplier. If they don’t fit or aren’t right for some other reason, the plant might be stuck until the next batch arrives. At MMNA, the plastic compound, the mix’s temperature, even the moulding dies themselves can be changed and corrected. It keeps the plant moving and reduces the need to ship and transport a bunch of plastic parts.
Jerry also explained that MMNA uses a number of recycled and recyclable materials, in addition to the plastic. “A lot of the sheet steel we use is recyclable, and we send the metal we trim or cut off to scrap, where it gets melted back into the mix and sent back to us as a new roll of steel.”
We geeked out over the high-precision robots throughout the MMNA factory, and stopped at several points along the line to see some of the more interesting robots. Some of the best included the wheel-mounting ‘bot, as well as the robotic gymnasts that spun and contorted themselves with laser-guided precision to mount the dashboard and seats in the cars, without touching or scratching any other part. I’d even say the process looked “like a sort of mechanical ballet”, if I wasn’t certain someone cleverer had thought of it before me.
One thing that struck me as odd, some of the Mitsubishi Outlander Sports I was seeing had blacked-out grilles, black roof rails, and rode on steely wheels with deep, all-season treaded tires. “What are those?” I asked.
“Those are going to Russia,” explained Berwanger. He went on to explain that, for the most part, the Russian-bound cars were identical to the US versions. Here and there, however, there were differences. Different colors, interior trim, wheel options, and differences in the exterior lighting were the most obvious. Up close, the interior of the Russian cars had a few less buttons, but were still obviously quality pieces.
Russia is the factory’s biggest export market, I was told. Followed by a few other South American and eastern European nations, all of whom could get the Outlander Sport in a paramilitary-looking beige with blacked-out trim look.
“That would sell like crazy here in the ‘States,” I told Berwanger, who gave me a doubtful sort of nod in polite response. Apparently, MMNA’s market studies suggest otherwise.
Once we cleared the assembly line, we checked out MMNA’s quality control area. Here, cars are driven on rolling chassis dynos and the freshly-minted Mitsubishi Outlander Sports are checked by an auditor in a specially lit room. Any flaws the auditor finds are rated on a 1, 3, or 5 scale. The idea is that, if a flaw is found and rated a “3”, then “3 out of 10” customers would notice it. 1s and 3s are corrected, but if a 5 is found, then the workers on-hand have to go out into the lot and check the day’s batch of cars. If the flaw is found in another car, they all get pulled back in for the fix.
That’s some pretty serious QC, and the “polar vortices” we’ve been seeing in Illinois this month have to be pretty serious motivators to get the job right.
Here’s a few more photos of that process, which really impressed me. What about you, dear readers? Do you think the system works, or- more importantly- do you think Mitsubishi should offer a black-grilled, off-roady version of its Outlander Sport here in the US? Let us know what you think in the comments, below.
Original content from Gas 2, photos courtesy MMNA.