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Australian parts in new Nissan Leaf

Supply and demand: Nissan's Australian manufacturing operation will produce two key die-cast aluminium parts for the second-generation Leaf EV.

Melbourne casting plant awarded Nissan Leaf electric hardware contract

Nissan logo11 Sep 2017

By DANIEL DEGASPERI

NISSAN Casting Australia (NCA) will manufacture two key die-cast aluminium parts for export to Japan and fitment into the company’s second-generation Leaf electric vehicle, with the 200-strong workforce in Dandenong South in Victoria awarded the brief because cheaper markets could struggle with the highly technical nature of the items.

Speaking with GoAuto at the reveal of the new Nissan Leaf in Japan last week, NCA managing director Peter Jones said the Australian casting operation had been retained because “I think when you look at some of the cheaper countries that these things could be produced in, the quality isn’t always there”.

“I think there’s a number of reasons why we survive in Dandenong South but a lot of it’s to do with the clever people that we have working for us,” he said.

“We have the technical ability, we have the skills, we also have the capability in terms of the manufacturing process. The reason why we exist (is that) they’ re highly technical parts, the quality that’s required for production means that they have to be done in a certain type of environment.

“It is a privilege for us having won this business, and there are some things with Nissan that we actually have to compete on the open market for with Japanese companies, Chinese companies and others around around the world that would want this business.” Mr Jones pointed to the advent of highly technical EV production as a reason for Nissan Motor Corporation relying on the established NCA plant to deliver parts that were too important to fail.

For the Leaf, this is the die-cast aluminium housing and lid for the “brains” of the electric motor assembly, dubbed a “water jacket” because H20 threads around it to keep the insides cool.

In a small nod to its manufacturing origin, a small kangaroo-shaped imprint is made on the outside of every part produced by the plant – meaning at least two of the Australian-made stamps will figure underneath every new Leaf produced.

“I think that we’ve started to specialise in these EV parts because they are so complex, they are so complicated, and getting the manufacturing process right is amazing,” Mr Jones explained.

“Basically, it’s a whole heap of electrics (inside). Water goes in through it to keep it cool (because) electricity runs hot.

“Electricity and water doesn’t mix very well, so it’s very important that we make sure that they go together really tightly so that we don’t get any porosity or leakage of water from the cooling system into the electric system.

“It includes the control module that controls the flow of the current out through the car. It takes the DC power from the battery, and turns it into AC current that actually goes to the electric motors that turns the wheels. But it’ s got capacitors, it’s got all different types of motor control modules, and resistors, and things like that. So, really this is the hub of the motor itself.” Mr Jones said an added complexity was the fact that production of high-pressure die-cast aluminium was “not an exact science”.

“If you actually think of aluminium as lots of little polystyrene ball-type things, what we do is actually ram those, under pressure, through a die and compact those,” he said.

“When the metal is pushed through that die, you’ve got to cool it at certain times in different parts. You’ve got to make sure that it goes through the die evenly, and it doesn’t pull through too quickly in one area, and to push it into some of these areas, so it’s quite a complex piece of work.

“We have a very, very high-quality checking process because these parts are very, very important to us and this is really our lifeblood moving forward.” The two-piece electric motor assembly for the new Leaf is the latest contract for NCA, which produces 2.5 million parts per year including hybrid powertrain components for the Toyota Prius C-rivalling e-Note, manual gearbox parts for the Navara, plus oil pan and final drive assemblies for other Nissans and Renaults.

All parts – 16,000 towbar accessories excepted – are exported for a total value of $82.1 million, and Mr Jones added that despite being in an age of local factory closures, the 90,000-square-metre production facility saw black ink last year.

“We’ve worked very hard to make this plant viable, and last year, with a lot of work, we were profitable,” he said.

“We have been working very, very hard to maintain the plant. We’ve got a great relationship with our workforce, they’re very, very clever people and that’s how we manage to produce these parts in a cost-effective and globally competitive environment.

“Three years ago, we negotiated a four-year (business enterprise agreement) which meant that when it came to a quote on these type of products and also on the eNote that’s selling very well here (in Japan) we did that quoting with confidence, knowing what our cost base was going to be going forward.

“This year we’ll turn over $90 million, but we couldn’t do that without the support of government. And both the state of Victoria and the federal government have assisted us along the way with some of our capital purchases because it is expensive to operate in Australia. We manage to do that in Australia and it’s something that we're all extremely proud of.” Mr Jones said there are now contracts for the plant extending to 2022. It currently works on a three-shift, six-day per week operation equipped with 13 die-cast machines that produce 49 different parts, large or small.

Currently the plant exports to Japan, the United States, Thailand and Mexico.

NCA opened in 1982 and bypassed the closure of the vehicle assembly plant that produced the Pulsar, Pintara and Skyline, plus other rebadged versions thereof.

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