Factory Visit — Isuzu, Thailand

Date: Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Last year What Van? was invited to Thailand for a pre-launch drive of the new Rodeo and while he was there Steve Banner paid a visit to the production facility.

 

Competitive labour costs mean that it's a lot cheaper to build pick-ups in Thailand than in Japan or Western Europe. An assembly line worker there might earn as little as £200 a month — a pittance in the UK, but not a bad wage at all so far as the locals are concerned

As a consequence it's not surprising that Isuzu assembles its new Rodeo pick-up at its factory at Samrong, just 15 miles from Bangkok, the Thai capital. Nor is it surprising that the factory relies a lot more heavily on manual labour than do equivalent factories in Europe.

Originally set up in 1963, it started building pick-ups in 1974. Today it covers almost 204,000m2 and churns out 170,000 units annually, a total that includes the, rather impressive, Rodeo-derived MU-7 4x4 five-door passenger car. Around 1,000 MU-7s roll off the line every month.

MU-7 is not sold in Britain alas but its successor may be when it appears at some point during the next two years, always assuming that its UK appeal isn't destroyed by punitive Vehicle Excise Duty. Hopefully it will be converted into a van to replace the much-missed Trooper Commercial.

Samrong is not Isuzu's only vehicle assembly plant in Thailand. Its Gateway 2 complex carries out final assembly work on light and heavy trucks and packs CKD vehicle kits destined to be put together in other countries, with almost 3,600 people employed across the two factories.

Robots

Low labour costs don't mean that Samrong eschews robots entirely. It has getting on for 100, including 40 in the framing shop, 20 in the paint plant and 28 in the body shop.

Many of the robots in the body shop are used for welding. A Rodeo's body has around 1,700 welding points on average.

Windscreens are installed manually, however, rather than by the robots often used in European factories. “In fact most of the final assembly work is manual, and the trim line's 24 stations rely on manual labour completely,” says director and factory manager, Yong Prathuangsukh.

Local Content

Over the years Isuzu has sourced an increasing percentage of the content of its vehicles from local parts factories, often owned by major international companies. Around half of these plants are Japanese owned, while many of the remainder are Japanese/Thai joint ventures. Only a handful are in Thai ownership.

Local content is now running at 95 per cent, but local operations cannot provide everything. Rodeo's gearbox, for example, comes in from an Isuzu plant in the Philippines.

Its engines are built in Thailand, however, at an Isuzu factory some 40 miles away from Samrong. Isuzu also makes many of its own pressings and forgings.

The quality of in-bound parts is typically checked twice during every shift at Samrong to ensure they match quality requirements and are to the correct specification.

Just in Time

Many modern vehicle assembly plants have supplier parks next door. They are clusters of operations owned by parts makers that rapidly funnel components direct to the production line, sometimes putting together major items such as dashboards so that they can be installed on the line as a package with minimal effort.

Samrong doesn't have such a park but nonetheless operates a just-in-time system, with bought-components arriving at the line from its 148 supplier firms as and when they are needed. They come in by road — the factory doesn't have a rail link — and the completed vehicles depart the same way.

“A vehicle rolls off the line every 1.72 minutes,” says Prathuangsukh. Exports account for the bulk of pick-up output and turn up in over 80 countries.

Assembly

Some assembly procedures will be familiar to anybody who has ever visited a light commercial vehicle plant in Britain or Continental Europe.

For example, Rodeo's chassis initially goes down the line upside down to make it easier for key components to be fitted. Once that's done, it's flipped right-side up.

The cab and cargo box accompany each other through the production process, but at one point the former is separated from the latter so that its interior can be installed. It's then dropped back into place ready for the vehicle to head towards completion.

Pick-up Central

Isuzu is by no means the only manufacturer to build pick-ups in Thailand. Others who do include Ford, Mazda and Mitsubishi, and it's not just the low cost of labour that's prompted them to set up shop there.

For a kick-off they can take advantage of huge domestic demand. Thailand is the second biggest pick-up market in the world — exceeded only by the USA — with Isuzu, a leading player, taking over 37 per cent of registrations.

It's a country with a major agricultural sector and Thai farmers rely heavily on pick-ups for their transport. But they're not the only people who acquire them.

Businesses that would buy Ford Transits or Mercedes-Benz Sprinters elsewhere in the world acquire pick-ups with van bodies instead, while pick-ups with seats installed in the cargo area are deployed in the same way that we would use minibuses.

VERDICT

Rather than try to create its own car industry as some Far Eastern countries have done, successive Thai governments have been cute enough to develop their country as a centre of pick-up excellence instead, encouraging manufacturers to set up in their back yard. The results speak for themselves.

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