The second group of Leaf Ambassadors in the Nissan Journey to Zero Emissions have just reluctantly returned their Nissan Leaf demo vehicles, having enjoyed six weeks of petrol-free motoring. Of the eight ambassadors selected thus far in the first two groups, Mr Suresh Thiru of Jobstreet.com stands out as one of the more enthusiastic ambassador of the bunch, championing the Leaf’s cause with relentless energy. We know, we work in the same office as he does.
Still, working under the same roof did not guarantee us his exclusive time, and the best Suresh could do to slot us into his busy schedule was an 8am conference call while he was driving to work in which the following interview was conducted.
During a recent personal visit to Japan, Suresh took the initiative to request for a tour of Nissan’s plant in Oppama, birthplace of the Leaf. Opened in 1961, the Oppama plant is situated some 50km southwest of Tokyo next to the Oppama Wharf, a setup which helps to facilitate export operations. Churning out 80,000 vehicles per month as of 2011, the Oppama plant also manufactures Juke, and Cube in addition to the Leaf.
The Oppama plant also houses Nissan’s Global Training Centre to facilitate staff development for Nissan production plants worldwide, notably training them on the Nissan Production Way on areas such as Manufacturing, Logistics, Quality Assurance, and Maintenance.
Read on, as Suresh recollects his memories and experience of the visit.
At the end of your six-week stint with the Leaf, can you summarize your overall experience and share with us your parting thoughts on the car?
ST: Basically, after six weeks, I’ve become comfortable with what would be the biggest concern that people have with electric cars, which is range anxiety. I start the day with a mental check of all the places I might need to go, and give myself an okay or not okay. If it’s less than 120 kilometres, then it’s a go. Now, when I’m driving, I don’t keep checking the gauge like I used to. If my destination is more than 120 kilometres, then I plan where I can charge the car. We’re looked at installing a charger in the office (Wisma Jobstreet.com), which would have cost us only RM1,500, but decided against it because I was only using it for a few weeks. Conceivably if people in the office use electric cars in the future, this is something we can revisit. With a charger in the office, anytime I need to, I can plug it in and extend my range considerably.
With regards to the drive comfort, the car is extremely quiet, which is very important to me. I can enjoy my music, or make a conference call via Bluetooth hook-up with the car, so I make my drive to work far more efficient as I can have meetings like we’re doing right now at 8 o’clock in the morning, although my colleagues might not like that. I make use of the 45-minute drive to work a lot more efficiently. Because the car is very quiet, it’s very conducive.
Do you think you can go back to your own car after this?
ST: People should not get hooked to materialistic things, but if I was to buy a car in the future, then the Leaf will get high priority; it is really because of its zero environmental footprint.
So, tell us, how did you find yourself at the Leaf factory’s doorstep?
ST: I was going to Japan on a visit at a conference, so I went to the Nissan folks here and said, ‘Can I get a tour?’
They do organize tours at their factory in Oppama, so I arranged myself to schedule up with one of those tours.
Before you stepped inside, what were you expecting to see in the factory, and did what you eventually see match your expectations?
ST: I have never actually been into a car factory, but I have been to many electronics factories, and I’ve seen videos of cars in production. My expectation was that I would see a large stretched out factory with lots of robots in it, and to a large extent, that was true of the Leaf plant.
They have a lot of efficiency built into their line, and they can get a lot of things done very quickly in a small space. They can get their engine installed in under one minute, for example, which is very impressive. Also, the robots can pick-up and install a large piece of glass on to the car in under one minute. Not only that, they assemble three different cars in the same plant in the same line.
I was quite impressed by their ability to do a lot of stuff very very fast, and also get a lot of things done in a very small footprint. Their ability to assemble three different cars in the same line is also impressive.
Were there other aspects of the factory’s inner workings and organization that impressed you even more?
ST: The automation was impressive; to be able to pick up a large piece of glass and install it onto the frame of the car in under one minute, and to be able to install a motor into the car in under one minute. This is due to their ability to automate and streamline their processes.
Also, if you walk the factory floor, it is spotlessly clean, and you see signs of organization everywhere. They have made what is a complex problem, simple and straight forward.
Was there anything that we can all learn from the way they do things there?
ST: If you look at it, you would be quite impressed by their ability to continuously improve stuff, and their discipline in getting things done in the right way all the time. You have to install the side view mirrors for example, and if you need do that daily, at some point in time you might get lazy and not install it properly, and that’s going affect customers on the road.
They do have a QC in place, but to a very large extent, QC is done by the people who do the work themselves. Running a factory that size with minimal supervision is very impressive from a work organization point of view.
Also they have a process where as the factory is running, there is a cable on the side, off the line, and anytime they see a problem they can pull the cable to get some help. If you look at how they build, they basically start off with what you call the fitting process where the chassis comes in and then they assemble the seats, dashboard, mirror, glass, and then they put the hood on. All of that is done by a few people with a lot of organization. The whole process is done efficiently.
Then we go to the area where the engine is installed and again there are two people doing the work and they are doing it repeatedly all the time. So a lot of work is done by just a few people. If you visit the Proton plant, you would hope they would be equally efficient.
Looks like we should give Nissan a call for a plant tour for ourselves too!
ST: Yes, that would be nice!
Having driven the Leaf for six weeks and now having the opportunity to tour the factory that made it, what new insights have you gained with regards to the Leaf itself and electric vehicles as a whole?
ST: I think that you will get a better understanding of how the car works, and the working mechanics on how to charge the battery, and how the engine works. You can have a better understanding of the mechanics of the car and how it is built. Also, it gives you a lot more confidence in the quality of the build.
At the plant, we also got a presentation and briefing where we got to ask questions; that was nice. Also, the plant has a solar panel that is connected to a rapid charger, so anybody can come in and get their car charged. The rapid charger, which runs on 40 amps, can charge up to 80% of your battery in half an hour. So, that’s really convenient. Once you get that in place, and get rapid chargers around the city and in surrounding towns then the problem of range anxiety goes away considerably. If you have rapid chargers built on regular intervals along the highway, you can basically take the car and go down to Singapore, for example.
Pictures: Suresh Thiru.