Dec. 06–America’s appetite for light trucks and the sport utility vehicle is giving Honda Manufacturing of Alabama a critical place in the company’s operations.
That was evident Thursday, when about 1,500 employees from Line 2 at the Lincoln plant turned out to celebrate the first day of production for the new 2019 Honda Passport, the company’s recently revived 5-seat SUV.
The Passport, which was originally Honda’s first SUV, left the market 16 years ago until Honda unveiled the new version in Los Angeles last month. It’s the latest addition to the Lincoln plant’s other, similar vehicles — the Ridgeline pickup, the Pilot SUV and the Odyssey minivan. HMA is the sole manufacturer for all of the models in the U.S. market.
Over the last year, SUVs and crossover vehicles have posted strong double-digit sales gains, with the light truck segment accounting for nearly 65 percent of sales.
Before employees danced and jostled for position Thursday to snap pictures of the new vehicle, Honda Vice President of Manufacturing Mike Oatridge reminded them of the factory’s importance. About 4,700 employees come to work in Lincoln every day, with an additional 2,000 in support staff.
Honda Passport begins production in Lincoln
“As light truck sales continue to dominate the U.S. sales market, this plant plays a very large role in Honda’s success,” Oatridge said. “That’s a great honor and it’s a great privilege, and I think we’re all proud of the teamwork we have and the success this team has.”
Lara Harrington, chief engineer and the Passport development leader, gave the plant high praise for the way it has tackled the project.
“I’ve been to many manufacturing sites, but I’ve never seen such teamwork, dedication, hard work and commitment to quality, as I’ve seen from the associates at HMA and the Passport Development Team,” Harrington said. “HMA is critical for the success of Honda’s ever-expanding light truck lineup. Light trucks and SUVs is a market segment that continues to explode in growth.”
The Passport and Pilot do share some commonalities, Oatridge said, which is why preparation for the new vehicle only involved retraining about 2,000 employees and reprogramming of existing equipment. It’s a flexible approach to manufacturing which he said will have to become the industry norm. The auto industry is still bracing for an uncertain future, with electric and autonomous vehicles still on the horizon. At the same time manufacturers are considering lighter, more efficient vehicles, the market is gobbling up large light truck variations. That makes for an odd mix going forward.
But Lincoln has proven it can be flexible. The Passport is the fourth vehicle refit for the plant in four years, and the first new product developed and launched through Lincoln. While that kind of change may not be unprecedented for a Honda plant, Oatridge said, it’s “definitely not normal.”
“It’s a lot of work,” he said. “But this team came together. They understood the challenge and built on those new models, and our success has been a little better each time.”
And because the plant was involved in the very early stages of the Passport’s relaunch, the “pride level” for employees is high.
“Right now, this is what U.S. customers are looking for, particularly as gas prices continue to be low,” he said.
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