Nissan Australia’s Dandenong South casting plant, to the south east of Melbourne, has achieved a small but significant milestone – 35 years of operation producing cast aluminium products for export around the world.
And the facility, officially known as NCAP (Nissan Casting Australia Plant), is looking forward to a future of producing advanced castings for electric vehicles being built by Nissan in Japan and the USA.
In fact, NCAP has already been supplying stator housings, inverter casings and water jackets for the first-generation LEAF to the vehicle assembly plants in Japan and America. Currently, NCAP is already supplying those parts for the production of the second-generation LEAF in Japan, and the American plant in Chattanooga is soon to commence production of the new series, with support from NCAP.
Peter Jones, NCAP Managing Director (pictured), says that the plant’s flexibility has been a huge asset since its inception, and that flexibility promises to open up new revenue streams in coming years, as Nissan commits to a larger percentage of electric vehicles in its global product portfolio.
“Every time there’s been an opportunity, we’ve changed,” Jones told the local media yesterday.
When NCAP opened it was manufacturing cylinder heads using a low-pressure (gravity-fed) die-cast technique. Those heads were exported just to Japan.
“We then introduced high-pressure die-casting and we started making gearbox components – and we got new markets in Mexico and the US,” Jones explained.
“We then went to machining and assembly. We got some more exports to the US and Thailand. We then changed to drivetrain materials and EV components.
“Every time we changed, adapted and overcame – if you like – we entered into new markets. And that level of flexibility has allowed us to survive, because the reality is, you’d have to question why.
“You’re in a high-cost country, you’re an orphan plant; everything you have, you have to put on a boat or plane, or something like that. Whereas if we made [castings] in Japan or China it was cheaper.”
Against a backdrop of vehicle assembly plants closing their doors in Australia, the Nissan plant’s anniversary looks nothing short of miraculous, if one ignores all the hard work, commitment and collective cleverness displayed by the staff at the plant.
NCAP has to compete on its own merit, bidding for business that could go to another enterprise within the Renault Nissan Alliance, or even an external company. But NCAP has not only successfully won business on the strength of its competitive pricing, but also its quality and its ability to deliver on time.
Locking loyal staff into four-year EBAs (enterprise bargaining agreements) has provided NCAP with the “surety” needed to offer parts at competitive prices on the world’s stage. Yet another point working in NCAP’s favour is the “logistical benefits”, meaning the cost of shipping from Melbourne can be discounted heavily, because container vessels arrive in Australian ports filled to the brim, but leave empty. It’s very different from exporting out of China…
The so-called “orphan” plant’s output – what Jones describes as “high-quality, complex and difficult parts” – is sometimes produced under high-pressure time constraints, highlighting the plant’s “flexible” and “agile” manufacturing. NCAP is virtually a centre of expertise for producing these sophisticated castings in half the time it might require for other Nissan casting plants elsewhere.
That is literally the case, says Jones, who offered one anecdote to illustrate.
“Probably 18 months at least,” he offered as the ideal lead time for bringing a part to series production. “This last [part] we actually pulled off in less than nine, because it was meant to be made somewhere else, and they rang us and asked very nicely – and we said yes.
“The thing about that is once again that proved our capability.
“I personally have a view that they didn’t think we were going to be able to do it, but we did it.”
Jones says that a hidden strength at the heart of NCAP’s capability is its locally-based external suppliers. It’s that close relationship with its suppliers, plus the timeliness, the quality of the finished product and the all-in cost that have established NCAP’s reputation within the Nissan world as a key facility with a can-do attitude.
The mark of success
NCAP has been around since October 1982 and has signed up contracts to keep it in operation through to 2025. Of the 192 staff employed there, 146 are permanent/full-time, working a three-shift system seven days a week.
At the core of the plant are the 52 robots and the 13 high-pressure casting machines, ranging from 800-tonne up to 2500-tonne (the tonnage the liquid aluminium is pushed through the die).
The plant produces 2.6 million castings a year and exports all of them other than the 16,000 tow bars, which are welded together in the plant and sold as factory-approved accessories through the Nissan Australia dealer network. According to Nissan, the export programs bring in $82.5 million a year.
Renault-Nissan plants in Japan, the USA, the UK, Thailand, South Korea and Mexico are customers for NCAP, as are Calsonic, Aichi Kikai and JATCO.
NCAP castings are identifiable by the raised kangaroo graphic cast in the part. This can be seen on manual transmission housings, as one example. The vehicles sold in Australia fitted with parts supplied by NCAP include Qashqai, Pathfinder, X-TRAIL, Renault Koleos, Infiniti Q50 and Nissan Navara.
Vehicles not available in Australia, but fitted with NCAP parts, include Elgrand, Serena, Livina, e-NV200, Note and X-Terra.
The aluminium used at the plant is ‘secondary aluminium’, an alloy of aluminium and iron particles. NCAP uses this alloy, which has to be imported from abroad, because the local supplier, Simsmetal, no longer produces it. The only aluminium production in Australia is ‘virgin aluminium’, which is more prone to fatigue and crack than the alloy.
NCAP heats the aluminium ingots to 700° in a melting tower, which is a furnace that tips like a teapot for the liquid metal to pour into crucibles that are carefully transported to the different dies by forklift. During the tour of the plant, journalists were warned more than once that aluminium doesn’t change colour, even when heated to the point where it becomes a liquid – so beware of picking up any part in the plant that ‘looks’ like it is cool.