U.S. Automakers See Surge in Efficiency

The 2008 Harbour Report indicates that there is near parity among the top three U.S. and top three Japanese automakers

Good news is hard to come by at Chrysler these days. Its sales have been tanking, and industry observers regularly chatter about whether Cerberus Capital made a worse mistake buying the automaker last year at the front end of a recession than Daimler-Benz did in 1999. But the influential Harbour Report produced by consulting firm Oliver Wyman, which annually tracks factory productivity, says Chrysler's restructuring under Daimler-Benz made its factories as efficient as those of industry leader Toyota (TM).

Those two companies hold a marginal lead over General Motors (GM) and Ford (F), as well as Honda (HMC), Nissan (NSANY), and Hyundai (HYMPY). In fact, the chief author of the study, Ron Harbour, says: "There is near parity among the top three American and top three Japanese automakers." He notes that Detroit's improvement has been staggering and stands in stark contrast to the 1990s, "when the Japanese beat Detroit in productivity two-to-one."

The year-over-year improvement by Chrysler, the best in the industry, couldn't be happening at a better time for the U.S. industry—or Chrysler. "Sales are falling, and the shift to smaller cars is happening faster than the Detroit companies can adapt their manufacturing and downsize," says Harbour. "Can you imagine how much they'd be hurting if they hadn't been making these improvements?"

Chrysler and Toyota take 30.37 human hours to produce a vehicle on average, across all manufacturing of vehicles and parts that go into them. GM takes 32.29 hours, and Ford takes 33.88 hours.

Detroit's Car Challenge

Greater productivity should lead to bigger profits. Despite the near parity among automakers, there is a gulf between the most profitable and least profitable because of the health-care costs and head counts that were in place last year when Harbour's data were collected. Nissan and Honda both earned $1,641 per vehicle last year, followed by Toyota's $922 per vehicle. By contrast, Chrysler lost $412 per vehicle, while GM lost $729 and Ford lost $1,467. All profits were down among the major carmakers because of softening sales of pickup trucks and big SUVs, which pack more profit than passenger cars.

Harbour, whose company has been tracking auto industry productivity since 1980, says the Detroit Three are going to be severely challenged for a few years because of how fast consumers are moving out of trucks and into cars. "These companies have gotten used to earning as much with one pickup truck or big SUV as they do selling 10 passenger cars."

Why is that? A truck or SUV actually takes more steel and other raw materials to build than most passenger cars. But the engineering and assembly of a truck tends to be cheaper, and auto companies have been smart about loading up trucks with features that carry high profit margins. The best-positioned companies right now, says Harbour, are those that are able to build cars, trucks, and SUVs at a single plant to cope with rapid shifts in consumer demand.

Chrysler officials have worked at increasing productivity across the board since 2001, when then-German owner DaimlerChrysler moved aggressively to cut costs. "We set out to reach this goal in 2001 when we had the highest HPV [hours per vehicle] among the North American OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] that are tracked in The Harbour Report, and to have reached this goal is truly an example of how successful we can be," said Frank Ewasyshyn, Chrysler's executive vice-president for manufacturing.

Quality Expectations

The Japanese have long been the productivity leaders, but their operations are being challenged by slower sales as well. Toyota and Nissan, especially, have invested in pickup truck and SUV production in the past few years. None of Nissan's products in this category have been strong sellers. And though Toyota's pickups and SUVs have been better received by the public, sales in those categories are slipping. And in contrast with the Detroit companies, which have been laying off or retiring workers, Toyota, for example, has not been laying off employees even though it has fewer vehicles to build. "It's just the way Toyota operates, so it's even more impressive that it lost only 1.5% in its productivity rating in 2007," says Harbour.

With productivity gains tend to come increases in quality. As carmakers have focused on designing potential problems out of their vehicles from the first hour of computer-generated design and making assembly methods at factories simpler and more stress free, vehicle quality has risen.

But there are exceptions. Harbour's top U.S. assembly plant for productivity is a Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio, that manufactures the Jeep Wrangler (BusinessWeek.com, 9/10/07). But this week, J.D. Power & Associates noted that Jeep had fallen to dead last in quality, as measured in the first 90 days of ownership. "Jeeps are pretty easy to put together," said Harbour. "But they had a good sales year last year with the four-door Wrangler, and I think a lot of people who bought a Jeep for the first time didn't realize what a rough ride they can be coming out of a nice comfortable car."

If sales projections are right, and U.S. consumers are going to be buying many more of those comfortable and more fuel-efficient cars—and fewer SUVs and pickups—the automakers are going to have to dig deeper and wring even more efficiency and profit out of the plants that build them.

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