Last week I was introduced to a low-cost nut-picker.
I could say that that made a welcome change to some of my work associates, who could be described as low-cost nit-pickers.
But I won't. Instead, I should explain that the low-cost nut-picker is a fascinating piece of totally automated machinery that picks up the nuts that are used to fasten wheels to a car, and places them in such a position that another piece of machinery can in turn pick them up and screw them into place.
I have to admit that I stood there fascinated for several minutes watching the low-cost nut-picker in action. It actually seemed to be enjoying its work as it used its little mechanical fingers to pick up the nuts and pop them into one of six little slots.
It certainly would have been enjoying the work better than some poor human who would otherwise have had to complete this menial task during a working shift.
The occasion was a visit to a brand-new Honda assembly plant in Japan. It's the Yorii plant, a new addition to the Saitama factory complex two hours by bus from Tokyo, which has begun assembling the new-generation Fit hatchbacks that next year will be launched in New Zealand as the Jazz.
Saitama is a steeply hilly part of Japan with terrain that looks not unlike our Coromandel Peninsula. There, Honda has chopped the tops off some hills and filled some valleys to create a 950,000 square metre site on which to build the Yorii plant which has a floor area of 345,000sqm. .
When fully operational - it's been assembling cars for two months - it will produce up to 1050 vehicles a day, employ 2200 people, and provide work for up to 400 suppliers. In addition to the Jazz, the plant will also assemble the Vezel, a new Jazz-based small SUV unveiled last week at the Tokyo Motor Show and which will also come to New Zealand, and a small sedan that will replace the City.
Honda claims the Yorii plant to be the cleanest and most environmentally-friendly vehicle assembly facility yet built, with processes and equipment that is far more efficient than before.
A tour through the place certainly underlines that claim. Modern vehicle assembly plants are highly automated places anyway, where robotised jigs pick up vehicle parts then twist and turn before holding them in position so they can be welded or bolted into place.
These jigs are traditionally large pieces of machinery, but at Yorii the largest units have been replaced by smaller robot jigs that fuss over each Jazz as it moves through the assembly process. They do everything from heavy-lift jobs tasks such as positioning engines and suspension assemblies, to mounting doors and instrument panels, right down to installing the wheels and tyres - and picking up the wheel nuts and screwing them in place.
It really is a fascinating and spotlessly clean place - and it aims to achieve what Honda calls a "triple zero" of environmental responsibility.
First, it aims to minimise CO2 emissions by generating solar and using other renewable energy sources. Secondly, it aims to minimise energy risk by using advanced energy management technologies. And thirdly, it aims to minimise waste by practising the three Rs of reducing, re-using and recycling.
There are plenty of brand-new technologies at Yorii. For example, the amount of energy consumed during vehicle painting has been reduced by 40 per cent - instead of using a traditional way of applying four coats of paint that need to be baked three times, the process has been reduced to three coats that need to be baked only twice.
And, even though the Yarii plant seems to be very much out in the sticks, it is in fact part of a much larger factory complex that features three automotive plants in the immediate area. There's the nearby Sayama plant that was built in 1964 as Honda's first volume vehicle production site and which these days is used to build such product as the Accord and CRV. There's also the Ogawa plant which was opened in 2009 and which supplies engines to Honda assembly facilities in Japan and overseas.
And now there's Yorii just two kilometres away from the others. Honda says the fact the three plants are part of a much larger corporate park can vastly improve the efficiency of transport and delivery of parts and components, which reduces CO2 emissions.
- © Fairfax NZ News