The Long Road From Design To Production

When introducing a new model, most manufacturers provide reams of technical specifications and explain the benefits of change. Yet another story hovers behind the scenes when a completely new motorcycle makes the trip from a clean-sheet design to the dealer's showroom floor. In the case of the 2001 GL1800 Gold Wing, this amazingly complex journey is known only to the cadre of engineers who, working together with the new model team and key manufacturing associates and suppliers, orchestrate the production of the new model.

The significance of manufacturing and production efficiency, economy--and quality--cannot be overemphasized. Without them, the most technologically brilliant motorcycle designs would not be affordable for mass production.

The saga of the 2001 GL1800 Gold Wing's production-line journey is especially important. For more than 20 years, only Honda of America Manufacturing's (HAM) Marysville Motorcycle Plant (MMP) has produced Gold Wings from domestically and globally sourced parts. Since the beginning, the touchstones of quality and durability have served as the Gold Wing's stock in trade.

NEW GOALS FOR A NEW MODEL

Previous Gold Wing models have established long-standing benchmarks for fit and finish. With the new GL1800 Gold Wing, Honda has raised the bar--again. Finding the means to accomplish this lofty task would prove far more difficult than it might seem, especially given the remarkable history of the Gold Wing in America.

The MMP was built specifically to produce motorcycles at a time when consumer confidence in American-built products was at its lowest. It was absolutely crucial the MMP produce Gold Wings to the very highest standards of quality and durability associated with Honda-built models. Failure to do so would have crippled Honda's reputation, to the extent that the company could never have followed the construction of the $35 million motorcycle plant with a $250 million auto plant in America. Happily, HAM's American success story is now a matter of record.

Increasing the production quality of the new Gold Wing provided many challenges. First, while quality was imperative, cycle time--the time it takes to build a motorcycle on the production line--was also important. The longer the cycle time, the more the model costs in terms of man-hours.

Second, designers are not specialists in the detailed art of manufacturing. As a result, if a newly designed part is of higher quality--but is also more expensive to make or takes longer to install on the production line--something, somewhere has to give.

Keep in mind that Gold Wing is the most complex motorcycle Honda builds, with the kind of technologically advanced components found in a Honda automobile--yet it must be built to about one-quarter the size. Building the Gold Wing also requires a great deal of handwork. Frames are welded exclusively by hand, and engines are built one at a time.

Simply gearing up to produce a new model, especially a flagship such as the Gold Wing, is a daunting task. As John "Turk" Michel, engineering subproject leader for the Gold Wing said, "To build the GL1800, everything had to be changed, from methodology to human resources, plus production methods and equipment."

The weld shop, for instance, added two new bays and 16 welding machines to handle the Gold Wing's aluminum frame. The paint shop needed entirely new fixtures to hang plastic body parts for painting. And for the motorcycle itself, 14 new sets of dies were created to make 23 body parts. MMP bought a new chassis dyno for the end of the production line, one that could accommodate the quality check for the Gold Wing's anti-lock brake system (ABS). Many associates from Marysville made trips to Honda's Hamamatsu facility in Japan, where Honda motorcycles are built. While there, these associates helped confirm manufacturing processes and, upon their return, they trained MMP associates to build the new Gold Wing.

THE KEY TO SUCCESS: FIT AND FINISH

A few crucial elements contributed to the final success of the GL1800's production. Tom Briggs, engineering project leader for the Gold Wing, says, "Probably the single highest impact activity we had going for the project was the establishment of what we call a Fit Team. That's a team of U.S. and Japan Honda associates whose sole responsibility was to engineer the fit and finish of this motorcycle. When we build up a unit, they take a look at gap space and flushness, and if it's excessive they determine the problem--whether it has to do with specification, the engineering drawing, a manufacturing problem or an assembly problem. Then they worked with the departments and suppliers to determine the best solution."

Steve Carter, Fit Team co-leader, says, "Our primary focus is basically on what the customer is going to see--all the fit and finish of those components. But we also look at the production side of it, to make it easier for the associate to build the GL on-line with the best quality. Basically, we look at the Gold Wing as being the Acura of the motorcycle side."

How seriously did Carter and his team take their job? As an example, for the button that opens the left-side fairing pocket, the team spent uncounted hours with the supplier testing and prototyping designs of the mechanism to get the right control feel. Getting the plastic fuel cap cover to sit flat and snap shut correctly in accordance with the GL's uncompromising specifications took the same zealous dedication from this team.

"The issue of fit and finish was so important that for the first time ever, a Quality Project Leader [QPL], Eric Hanson, was assigned specifically to the project." Briggs adds, "Eric has been immensely important to the success of this project."

Another key to success has been Honda of America's history of actively soliciting input from its associates with the goal of implementing changes to the production process to improve such things as fit and finish, efficiency and safety. As the mass production launch date approached for the new Gold Wing, associates generated suggested changes over the course of preparing the GL for production and during several different off-line build events. The majority of these changes, as part of the process to prepare for mass production, came directly from HAM's MMP associates connected with assembly on the production line. "And," as QPL Hanson says, "of the many items, I'd guess probably 30 to 40 percent of them were Fit Team related."

On a motorcycle as important as the Gold Wing, such actions demonstrate the associates' unwavering commitment to quality, with endless planning, testing and an ongoing program of human involvement at every level.

THE CHALLENGE OF PLASTICS

"Plastic is very difficult to control," Fit Team Co-Leader Steve Carter says. "In the Gold Wing, because of some of the materials we use, a big part could shrink up to 5mm. And then when you paint it, you encounter problems with heat distortion as the paint is cured. Because the paint affects the plastic, the parts have to be positioned a certain way. Even changing the color can change the shrink rate of a certain component. We have to hang them in a specific position and actually put stress on them to shape them and make them come out the way we want them to."

All-new fixtures were created for the GL1800, and they had to be built just as precisely as fixtures for welding the aluminum frames. The waiting parts are hung, instead of stored in baskets, to reduce stress and distortion. Paint build-up on the fixtures is burned off at 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, after which the fixtures are measured again for trueness. All just to paint the bodywork.

QUALITY CONTROL WITH AN ALUMINUM FRAME

Building the world's largest aluminum motorcycle frame is a remarkable feat. "The biggest difference with the aluminum frame," says Fit Team Co-Leader Carter, "is the tolerancing--that is, making the unit more precise. The GL1800's aluminum frame incorporates a number of cast parts and each of these parts is CNC-machined to keep all the variables very well controlled. So this new frame is a lot more precisely manufactured than the old steel frame. We have better measurements, better tolerances."

However, crafting the new Gold Wing's breakthrough aluminum frame wasn't any easier than the other processes. To begin with, MMP's weld shop had no experience in welding aluminum. That's significant, because welding aluminum is "a whole different ball game," according to Mark Clevenger, subproject leader/welder.

"With a steel frame, the sequence of building steps alters the manner in which distortion adds up as the assembly process progresses. With an aluminum frame, distortion can become more of a problem because aluminum transfers the heat so quickly to the other parts of the frame. So the distortion is more significant, yet it has to be kept to a tighter tolerance because the frame doesn't bend and flex as much as a steel frame does. So in an aluminum-frame weld shop, they have to be that much more accurate. And the sequence in which you weld components must be planned very carefully."

For training, Clevenger went to Hamamatsu. Then two more groups, hand-picked for their experience, skill and devotion to quality, went for training. Those trips were followed by groups of two and three, overlapping their arrival time so everyone trained together. In the process, welders went through about 2 1/2 tons of scrap aluminum in order to perfect their techniques. Nothing was left to chance. Significantly, Hamamatsu and MMP are the only two Honda factories in the world that weld aluminum frames for street motorcycles.

ENGINE BASICS

About the only part of the new Gold Wing that was relatively simple to produce was the engine, because its design does not differ radically from the 1520cc engines used in the previous Gold Wing and existing Valkyrie models. Perhaps the most significant change is the move from the Anna, Ohio, engine plant, where Gold Wing engines were originally built, to the Marysville plant, a move made primarily for efficiency reasons.

Just as with the 1500 engines, crankshaft bearings are carefully matched to exacting tolerances, but the 1800 motor gets an extra process. Unlike the GL1500, which uses hydraulic valve lash adjusters, the 1800 uses a shim-under-bucket adjustment design. So the engine assembly line at MMP now includes a shim selection machine that measures the cam lobes and cam journals, plus the clearances in the head from the valve stems and the journals for the cams. All of this information is digitally digested, producing a printout that defines what size shim should be used for each valve. Most impressive of all, this process takes only seconds to complete.

According to Chris Pickleheimer, engine assembly trainer, a number of highly skilled engine assembly associates trained MMP associates how to build engines. They trained extensively at the Anna plant, learning the intricate techniques of engine production.

THE HUMAN FACTOR: TRAINING AND OWNERSHIP

Quality assurance processes are found everywhere in the Gold Wing's assembly. Linda Corbett and Ken "Jordy" Jordan, assembly trainers, likewise made the requisite pilgrimages to Hamamatsu to become familiar with assembly processes for the new Gold Wing well before the mass production launch. Corbett then trained associates for the processes on the main line, as well as for off-line assembly. Jordan trained associates for modularization--a key to Gold Wing assembly.

Subassembly modules--such as the fairing, the trunk and saddlebags, front suspension and wheel, rear suspension and wheel--are all built off-line and supplied to the main line throughout the process. This is significant, because it allows the MMP to balance the line for production of different models on the same line.

Previously, since the cycle time for the GL1500 was so much longer than anything else assembled at the MMP, the line flow was composed of a GL1500, then two Shadow models. With the increased efficiency of modules, the MMP can now do block production of GL1800s back-to-back, a big improvement in production efficiency.

According to Linda Corbett, "There's a process we call QIP, quality in process. On the main line, the accuracy of every part, every torque mark, every bolt--everything that was put on between one associate and another--has been confirmed.

"When the bike transfers from one process to another on the main line, there's QIP there also, checking every nut, bolt, torque, routing, everything from the last associate to there. The associates have been told that if there's anything they aren't sure of, they have the authority to shut that line down so we can get it corrected."

Every Gold Wing is dyno-tested at the end of the line, following numerous static testing procedures that are completed before it is crated for shipping.

While the Marysville Motorcycle Plant has helped shape the creation of the Gold Wing series and the new GL1800, the manufacturing processes have, in turn, influenced the configuration of the plant.

It's also significant to ponder how the Gold Wing production will affect other, future models. For example, the paint shop changed its pretreatment system to use chemicals that could accommodate the aluminum frame, while also accommodating Valkyrie and VT1100 steel frames. Modularization, used to full extent with the GL1800, will make production of future models much more efficient by helping to standardize production on the main line and reducing on-line cycle time.

These processes reflect the original intent of the design team of the Marysville plant. The team tried to make the most efficient, but small, motorcycle plant. A key goal was to minimize cost of production, so the team pursued efficiency of production.

Just as the MMP design team created the original plant to build motorcycles, so too did the MMP have to be redesigned to build the new Gold Wing efficiently and with the highest quality. Honda's 2001 GL1800 Gold Wing makes use of lessons learned over the last 20 years of motorcycle production, merged with the latest in innovative, efficient production techniques. As always, this technology is driven by the unique human touch that has always characterized Honda products--to ensure they maintain their incredible reputation for durability, quality, and affordability.

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