Honda South Carolina Manufacturing Welcomes OpExChange for Inaugural Plant Visit

Recently, the OpExChange had the privilege of touring the American Honda plant in Timmonsville, South Carolina. This factory began production 26 years ago and has seen significant and continuous growth over the years. Since its inception, the plant has more than tripled in size, expanding from its initial footprint to an 840,000 square feet facility today. The plant joined the OpExChange community in 2022, and this recent plant visit served as their much-anticipated inaugural hosting event.

The visit came on the heels of a major win for the Honda South Carolina Manufacturing (SCM) Plant. Earlier this year, their high-performance side-by-side vehicle, the Honda Talon, was recognized by the South Carolina Manufacturing Alliance with the prestigious “Coolest Thing Made in South Carolina” award. This recognition underscores the innovative spirit and quality manufacturing practices that define the Timmonsville plant.

During the visit, Honda South Carolina Mfg. offered valuable insights into their innovative production processes. They showcased their implementation of automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and their recent shift towards automated guided carts (AGCs) for the assembly of their popular side-by-side off-road vehicles. The event also included informative presentations by the senior leadership team, a guided tour through the plant’s assembly operations, and a collaborative discussion session following the tour.

Honda Plants its Roots in Florence County

In 1998, Honda selected Timmonsville in Florence County, South Carolina, as its location for a new powersports manufacturing hub. This strategic decision was driven by several factors: a well-developed interstate system for efficient logistics, access to reliable transportation options, strong support from local and state governments, and a readily available pool of skilled workers.

The facility initially focused on the popular Honda Foreman 400 ATV. Demonstrating its adaptability to market trends, it expanded its capabilities in 2000 with ATV engine production and in 2003 with the Honda AquaTrax personal watercraft. Recognizing the growing demand for side-by-side vehicles, Honda strategically shifted production to include the Pioneer series in 2013. To further solidify its dominance in this segment, Honda transitioned ATV production to its North Carolina facility in late 2023, allowing the South Carolina plant to dedicate its resources to expanding side-by-side production. Today, this facility stands as the global leader in Honda side-by-side vehicle manufacturing, employing over 1,000 full-time workers and remaining one of Florence County’s largest employers.

Shifting Gears: From Carts to Smarter AGVs in Manufacturing

Many manufacturers are exploring and adopting automated guided vehicles (AGVs) for various tasks. These range from delivering materials and sub-assemblies to specific departments or assembly lines, to even transporting entire assemblies through different stages. The Honda plant in Timmonsville is utilizing both approaches.

For nearly two decades, their ATV line relied on carts pulled by an embedded chain system to move ATVs through the assembly process. These carts offered a balanced workload with operator tasks and durations carefully planned. Quality checks and controls were integrated for consistent output. The carts featured operator-controlled hydraulics for adjusting work height.

This system provided several advantages: improved safety, reduced material handling, and consistent production. However, when planning their side-by-side line, the plant sought to retain those benefits while incorporating more adaptability and modern technology.

Their solution? An auto-guided cart (AGC) system from Nippon System Technology (NST). Unlike the chain-driven system, each AGC is a “smart cart” that communicates with a central controller via Wi-Fi. Magnetic tape guides the carts, and QR readers at each station scan the vehicle identification number (VIN), triggering communication with both the station equipment and the operator. The cart automatically adjusts to an ergonomic height but allows further adjustment by the operator using foot pedals. This flexibility is crucial for associates of varying heights.

The AGC system offers significant advantages over the chain system. It eliminates the need for extensive facility modifications such as concrete cutting and chain return systems. Installation requires only laying new tape and programming adjustments. Additionally, the connectivity from this smarter system allows more traceability and monitoring of production while permitting individualized parametric control at each station.

In parallel, the plant has also implemented a separate AGV system: a tugger train that delivers painted chassis from the painting department to the SXS assembly line. This system also utilizes magnetic tape for navigation but has a simpler design compared to that of the smart carts on the assembly line.

Both AGV systems prioritize safety with area sensors that trigger an immediate stop when detecting pedestrians or obstructions. Additionally, they both incorporate user-friendly human-machine interfaces for operator interaction.

Plant Tour – Side-by-Side Assembly

Equipped with headsets, the OpExChange visitors embarked on a guided tour through SCM’s side-by-side production line. The manufacturing peers enjoyed experiencing a fantastic example of sequential production with a well-balanced workload amongst the stations.

Painted chassis arrive at the beginning of the line via automated tugger carts. Here, skilled associates use counter-balanced lifters to precisely position the chassis and engine onto the waiting auto-guided carts (AGCs). Upon scanning the vehicle identification number (VIN), the production line’s takt time (rate of demand) is captured, and the pace of the line and each workstation is set.

Workers at strategically placed stations along the line perform synchronized tasks to assemble the off-road vehicle. Interfaced with the line, fluid fill machines precisely measure and dispense the necessary antifreeze, brake fluid, or oil based on the specific VIN. The overall speed from the line was impressive – a completed vehicle rolled off the line every 150 seconds!

Overhead displays keep the workforce informed, presenting real-time data on production targets, progress, downtime, and Andon status (a system for highlighting production issues). Overhead conveyor systems further streamline the process by delivering subassemblies like doors and hoods directly to designated stations, where they are married to the associated VIN.

The production sequence culminates at the line’s end, where each finished unit is removed from the cart and undergoes a rigorous functional test on a dynamometer. This simulates real-world driving conditions while precisely measuring power output, ensuring peak performance for off-road adventures.

As the side-by-side unit is removed from the car, the AGC then returns to the beginning of the line. The return route strategically includes charging stations. If a low battery level is detected, the cart will automatically exit the system to one of these stations for a recharge, maintaining seamless operation on the line.

After the tour, the group met for a collaborative session to discuss the visit and to receive some further insight from the Honda team.

Honda’s AGV Journey: Sharing Lessons Learned and Room for Growth

The Honda team openly shared valuable insights from their automated guided vehicle (AGV) implementation. While their experience has been positive overall, they offered some key advice for fellow manufacturers considering this technology.

  • Communication Consideration: One cautionary note was to consider how the carts communicate with the network. If satellite communication is chosen, potential interference from weather should be considered. In their case, utilization of a WI-FI network presented some initial problems. Interference from other sources on the same frequency initially caused issues. Their solution involved creating a dedicated “Honda” network that minimizes interference.
  • Cart Selection Matters: Make certain to consider the end-application when selecting or designing the cart to be used. A cart being used to transport material could have dramatically different needs than one that will be used in an assembly operation. In an assembly operation, consider potential failure modes that might be induced and could potentially be prevented. Choosing the optimal cart for the job up front will minimize problems experienced later. If possible, request a demonstration on your site.
  • Selecting the Right Vendor: Take a “big picture” look when selecting a vendor. When the system does need support, how will your supplier accommodate you? Support proximity, availability of equipment, and cost should be evaluated and negotiated up front.

The concluding Plus/Delta session, a staple of OpExChange plant visits, provided some beneficial feedback to the Honda team on several positive aspects (“pluses”) visitors will take back with them to their plants.  Fueled by their own manufacturing experiences, they also provided several practical suggestions Honda could consider in their continuous improvement journey.

About Honda South Carolina Manufacturing

Manufacturer of world class Side-by-Side (SxS) vehicles. Celebrating twenty-six years of production in July 2024.

Located in Timmonsville, South Carolina Manufacturing is one of Honda’s 13 major manufacturing facilities in North America.

The Timmonsville facility is the result of Honda’s commitment to build products close to its customers. Today, Honda South Carolina Manufacturing is one of Florence County’s largest employers in the Industrial/Manufacturing category (Honda Powersports – Motorcycles, ATVs, Scooters, SxS).

About OpExChange

The OpExChange, sponsored by the South Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership, is a peer-to-peer network of manufacturers and distributors in South Carolina known for generating success for members through benchmarking and best practice sharing. Member companies host events and share practical examples of industrial automation, lean manufacturing improvements, and leadership development. It is an invaluable resource to

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