Isuzu’s D-Max is made in Thailand along with some of the brand’s LCVs. We recently had an opportunity to see the plant’s workings from the inside.

It’s not often one gets invited to visit an automotive manufacturing facility given the amount of secrecy that shrouds the process. So, when Isuzu asked us whether we would be interested to visit a manufacturing plant in Thailand, how could we, one of the region’s popular portals pass an opportunity like this?

It’s a two-hour drive (depending on traffic) from Thailand’s capital city Bangkok and the sophisticated plant is located in the Gateway Industrial belt in the province of Chachoengsao.

Spread out in an area of 703,520 sq-m, the layout of the L-shaped plant has been designed with several objectives in mind — operational efficiency, ecological balance and calm working atmosphere for the work force who work in two-shifts.

The Gateway plant is the Japanese brand’s second production unit dedicated to the assembly of D-Max range of pick-up trucks and LCVs. It was set up in 1997 when Isuzu decided to shift global production of the D-Max and LCVs to Thailand and make it the focal point for these two categories of vehicles.

Isuzu invested US$211million in the infrastructure and the plant began operations in 2012. 

With a strong and talented force of 5,600 people and combination of sound technical practices which includes state-of-the-art robotics, the Gateway plant has been able to consistently produce world-class products with best practices in place.

The overall efficiency can be judged by the day-to-day operations that have shown highest productivity levels achieved by an automotive plant in Thailand with minimum down time due to plant failures or other reasons. The plant has received many awards and ISO certifications for its superb performance capability.

The plant was built with a production capacity of 126,000 units (D-Max 91,000, LCVs 35,000) per annum and currently runs at 70 per cent capacity. The Samrong plant on the other hand produces 235,000 units per annum.

While the L-shaped Gateway plant is more of an assembly plant, there are several aspects of manufacturing that are carried out here like some of the sheet metal stampings, dedicated paint-shops for body-in-white components and plastics.

What struck us during the visit was how the processes were laid out and how clean the facility was. Apart from in-house production of parts from both Samrong and Gateway plants, Isuzu has over 211 external suppliers.

While 70 per cent of the assembly at Gateway is robotised like spot or MIG welding jigs, automated dollies, human interface is seen at all levels. There’s a significant focus on quality control that begins at the incoming parts/components areas and is carried out at each station of operation. 

Supplies from each vendor are pre-checked by a dedicated team of experts before they are loaded to the sorting warehouse inside the facility. In general, components for only 30 units are stocked in the facility.

Managers at the production facility told us that batch processing is practiced for the vehicles assembled. Each batch consists of 30 units of the same model and rough count of daily finished product output is 300+ units.

Both Thailand domestic market (right hand drive) and export (left hand drive) models are made here. Roughly, 80 per cent of the D-Max RHD models are locally consumed. The monthly demand for D-Max is pretty good at 10,000 units per month in Thailand and the rest of the production is earmarked for export markets.

In the Gateway facility, it takes about 3 hours to roll out a completely built up (CBU) D-Max. Two parallel lines operate under one roof – one for the D-Max and the other for the LCVs. And in-between the two models, 13 or so variants/trims are produced.

The assembly job for the D-Max begins with the chassis, the backbone for this body-on-frame rugged lifestyle 2-tonne pick-up. At the first assembly point, the bare chassis gets the suspension components fitted. At this stage the chassis frame is set upside down. After the rolling chassis gets the suspension components, then it heads towards the engine section where the powertrain is mounted onto the chassis.

The body section is where the processing time takes a bit longer as either the body-in-white cabs come from vendors for the LCV or individual stamped in-house sheet metal components of the cab are positioned into place with the help of a robotized jig and then spot-welded by robots. The manual element is of the technician gently guiding the components towards the jig and pre and post inspection using specific measuring tools for measuring tolerances as specified in the manual.

Of the various assembly points visited, the stamping section is the noisiest where huge hydraulic presses cut and shape the metal sheets through various operations while the quietest would be the trim assembly near the end of the assembly.

Most of the heavy or risky jobs are done by male technicians, though the Gateway plant also employs women who are given assembly line tasks like fixing finishing components, setting up of electrical components like wiring harness, lamp clusters among others. 

Before the semi-finished vehicle arrives at the final assembly line for trims, the body-in-white heads towards the paint shop where it is dipped into an anti-rust tub followed by several layers of paint and clearcoat for the glossy finish. Isuzu is the only company in the region to adopt the innovative Ro-Dip painting process. In contrast to the dip process, Ro-Dip rotates the vehicle’s body within the paint tank that in turn prevents fluid build-ups and allows air bubbles to escape from potential choke points. Ro-Dip is superior to the standard conventional painting process by improving the paint.

That Isuzu cares for its workers is best evidenced at the paint shop where the ovens are located on the upper floors to help reduce the temperature thereby lowering worker fatigue and stress levels.

At each station, the technician responsible gets a basket of components delivered via automated delivery vehicle that also moves along the moving assembly line. 

The whole assembly process from sorting components to final assembly is done with clockwork precision and this has been made possible due to the four solid process pillars which Isuzu management in Thailand have adopted from the principals in Japan. Internally it is known as DOJO and it’s quite a detailed programme, which involves management and workers and is related to best practices on site and upgrades.  

What DOJO does is that it encapsulates activities that cover the critical aspects of the assembly beginning with thorough inspection of parts and checks during assembly. For instance, if the technician misses a particular step, the built-in system in the assembly process will alert or prevent the assembly move forward till the previous step is not completed.

Then DOJO also ensures that each employee is acquainted with tools, their usage, safety practices and everyone attends a daily quality audit meeting so that all employees are up to speed and that they can be rotated through various functions or departments. Training sessions are carried out quite frequently at all levels for staff members.

There’s a dedicated DOJO section in the factory premises where mock-ups of the vehicles are placed for training purposes.

The D-Max that is in its second generation was introduced in 2011 at this plant. For 2019, it has received modest upgrades. Offered with 6-speed manual transmission sourced from Isuzu Philippines or four-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic function from Japan. The latter is sourced from Aisin.

All finished vehicles are tanked up and engine fired for a series of factory-determined testing procedures before they are shipped out to retailers or exported as CBU units.

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