30 years of Nissan UK

Nissan’s sprawling manufacturing plant in Sunderland is the biggest UK site of its kind and the linchpin of the North East’s automotive industry, with in excess of 30,000 jobs in the region dependent on its existence. As the plant gears up to celebrate its 30th anniversary, vice president for UK manufacturing at Nissan Motor Manufacturing (UK) Ltd, Kevin Fitzpatrick – who has been at the Wearside site from the beginning – speaks to Alison Cowie about reaching the milestone and why, for him, the future of NMUK is more important than reflecting on the past.

This September sees Sunderland-based Nissan Manufacturing (UK) Ltd (NMUK) reach its 30th anniversary.

The impact the global car manufacturer has made on the North East over the past three decades has been immense, with 6700 people currently employed at the facility and more than 27,000 jobs reliant in the supply chain. The North East Automotive Alliance also estimates that Nissan’s presence contributes around £700 million to the local economy.

Nissan’s decision to build a facility in Sunderland in 1984 came at a time when the North East was experiencing economic hardship due to the demise of heavy industry.

Kevin Fitzpatrick, vice president for UK manufacturing at Nissan Motor Manufacturing (UK) Ltd has been at the Sunderland plant from the beginning. He likens the global car manufacturer coming to Wearside to “Leicester winning the Premiership”.

However, he also reveals that there was some scepticism about Nissan’s intentions at the time.

“People thought that Nissan, like a lot of other companies, would just come to the region to take advantage of government grants and free rates for a short time and then disappear.”

Instead, the Japanese company has shown continued commitment to its Sunderland-based operation, investing more than £3.7 billion since 1984.

Over the years, the plant has thrived thanks to important production contract wins, including Micra, which was voted European Car of the Year and Qashqai, a model that has proved phenomenally successful since production began on Wearside in 2006.

“No one dreamt how successful Qashqai was going to be but within a couple of months we knew it was going to be something special,” Kevin reflects.

The Sunderland plant currently produces around 1200 Qashqais a day (one every 58 seconds) and exports to more than 130 markets worldwide.

Qashqai’s popularity also helped to limit the impact of the automotive industry crisis on the plant in 2008 and 2009 (the third shift was temporarily halted but soon reinstated) and it has since become Nissan’s highest volume car in Europe.

NMUK’s dominance in the crossover market was cemented when Sunderland won the contract to construct the Juke in 2010.

The plant was also chosen to construct the new premium compact Infiniti Q30 in 2013, marking a £250 million investment and a new 25,000 sq m production space, which began operating last year.

“Winning the Infiniti Q30 contract has helped push the plant up the value chain and it’s improved our capacity significantly in terms of working to tighter specifications and quality requirements,” says Kevin.

NMUK has also been at the forefront of Nissan’s electric vehicle strategy, producing its popular LEAF model.

In May this year, the 50,000th LEAF rolled off the production line at Sunderland – making it the first European carmaker to reach this milestone in EV production.

In 2015, a total of 476,589 vehicles were produced at the Sunderland site, meaning one in three cars produced in the UK was a Nissan.

The 30th anniversary gives an opportunity to reflect on the huge success of the Sunderland facility – and a number of dinners and events with staff, MPs and dignitaries are planned for this autumn,

“The 30th anniversary is a big milestone. We should celebrate it and be proud of what we’ve done,” says Kevin. “But we shouldn’t dwell on it too much; we should make sure we keep looking forward.”

It has been announced that the second generation Juke is earmarked for production at Sunderland, representing £100 million of investment, and that a further £22 million would be spent to modify Line 2 to introduce additional Qashqai production ahead of the refreshed model, which will be available early in 2017.

NMUK is also currently working on a 362,000 sq m extension housing an extra large press at Sunderland, to support ongoing production.

In addition to this production investment, Kevin is mindful of the external influences that are set to impact the motoring industry, but maintains that Nissan is well placed to compete.

“The car industry isn’t just about making cars. Things like sustainability, congestion and safety fears are all influencing factors,” says Kevin.

“Nissan is the market leader in electric and zero emission vehicles and NMUK is well placed by producing the LEAF.

“In the future, we’re going to see the rise of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles but that’s still quite a long way off – bringing them to market cost effectively and putting the infrastructure in place is going to take a while.”

Kevin also highlights the growing momentum toward autonomous driving technology and Nissan recently announced that the refreshed Qashqai will be equipped with Piloted Drive 1.0, a feature that allows cars to drive autonomously in a single lane in heavy traffic.

Technology and innovation are seen as a key focus for Kevin at the team at NMUK.

An innovation steering group has been established at the plant to help promote technology advances on site, and NMUK will continue to invest heavily in staff development and initiative such as the Nissan Skills Foundation to promote manufacturing and engineering roles at school level.

“Because technology is accelerating exponentially, the technology on cars and the automotive manufacturing industry is going to be the same. I think we’re going to see more changes to cars in the next ten years than we’ve seen in the last 30,” says Kevin.

He continues: “We have to be open and try new things on site – but not to the detriment of the efficiency level, which currently stands at 97 per cent.

“My job, going forward, will be to build on the success of the past 30 years, and to develop the Sunderland plant so that it remains contemporary and competitive.”

Nissan timeline

1984

Sunderland plant is announced at the former RAF Usworth Aerodrome. The Nissan Motor Manufacturing UK Ltd (NMUK) company is established.

1986

The Sunderland plant is officially opened by then PM Margaret Thatcher. Production at the Sunderland plant begins.

1987

NMUK is the sole producer of the Nissan Bluebird to the UK market.

1988

Work to build plastics and moulding and engine assembly lines begins. It is completed two years later.

1990

Production of the Primera marks the first model to be wholly built at Sunderland.

1991

Plant announces first profit of £18.4 million and is awarded British Manufacturer status by the Society of Motor Manufactures and Traders.

1992

Total investment in NMUK reaches £900m. The plant begins to produce Micra, which is soon named European Car of the Year.

1995

The one millionth vehicle is produced at the plant.

2000

Sunderland begins producing the Almera and becomes a three-model plant.

2002

Production of the the Micra C+C model begins.

2006

Plant ends Almera production, which is replaced by the Note model. Qashqai production also begins.

2007

Nissan announces a new £4.5m Parts Logistics Centre.

2008

Primera production ends and a night shift is introduced to keep up with Qashqai demand.

2009

1200 employees are made redundant as the result of the automotive industry crisis. A temporary suspension of the third shift is subsequently reintroduced, and the workforce recovers, as demand for the Qashqai remains buoyant.

2010

Nissan announces its new crossover, Juke, is to be built in Sunderland, replacing the Micra.

2011

NMUK is announced as the European manufacturing location for the electric vehicle LEAF. An onsite lithium battery manufacturing facility is also announced.

2012

Sunderland achieves record production.

2013

Production begins on the second generation Note and Qashqai. Sunderland is named as the first Infiniti production site in Europe, marking a £250m investment.

2014

NMUK launches its Nissan Skills Foundation to increase engagement in schools and promote careers in engineering and manufacturing.

The two millionth Nissan Qashqai rolls off the production line – a milestone reached faster than for any other model in the history of the UK car industry.

2015

The new generation Juke is slated for production at Sunderland.

Nissan underlines its commitment to crossover and electric vehicles with the start of extension work for a new extra large press line, representing £37m of investment.

Infiniti Q30 begins production at the new 25,000 sq m facility.

2016

It is announced that the refreshed Nissan Qashqai crossover, set to be available next year, will be the first vehicle in Europe to feature autonomous Piloted Drive technology.

Plant reaches milestone of 50,000 Nissan LEAF produced.

The modification of Line 2 is announced, representing £22m of investment to increase production of the Qashqai.

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