Honda gives rare look at R&D center taking on big project under new leader

RAYMOND, Ohio — A mile from a rural highway and past several levels of security is the Honda complex that does some of the heavy lifting — and much of the heavy thinking — for the automaker’s operations throughout North America.

Unlike the Honda assembly plants in Marysville and East Liberty, Honda R&D Americas in Raymond does not give tours to the public. It keeps such a low profile that even its employee count was once a secret.

That began to change in January, when Honda’s top executive announced that the Ohio research center would be in charge of developing a new “supercar,” the Acura NSX. The sports car will be built at a yet-to-be announced location in Ohio.

In light of the center’s highly publicized role with the NSX and other models, company officials opened its doors to The Dispatch for a rare look inside.

The lobby is adorned with 314 plaques representing the patents that Honda obtained based on work at the center.

“It’s like a developmental Petri dish,” said Frank Paluch, senior vice president of automobile development. “We can try new things.”

Automakers tend to do their most-sophisticated research close to their home base, which for Honda is in Japan. Honda is unusual in sending a complicated project so far away.

“It’s a testament to the competence that (the Raymond office) has,” said George Peterson, president of AutoPacific, a research firm in Tustin, Calif.

The heart of the complex is a design room as large as four football fields and filled with hundreds of cubicles for designers and engineers. It’s separated into departments that handle specific aspects of vehicle design.

Everyone is dressed in the Honda uniform: white pants and a long-sleeved white shirt with the person’s first name ironed onto the left breast. This includes the division’s president, whose desk is out in the open with everyone else’s.

Starting on Monday, the new president will be Erik Berkman. Before him, every top executive in the history of the research division came from Honda in Japan. Berkman joined the company in 1982 as an engineer in Marysville. His promotion might signal a growing role for the executives who have spent their careers in North America.

Berkman will oversee a Raymond office that has about 1,300 employees, most of them engineers; 200 more engineers are to be hired in the next few years.

The head count makes this the largest facility of its type in the Americas operated by a foreign-based company. The closest parallel is probably Toyota’s center in Ann Arbor, Mich., which has 1,100 employees.

Honda R&D also has 12 smaller offices in the Americas.

On the levels below the design floor in Raymond, workers make prototype versions of the vehicles and then test them. In this way, the complex is like a miniature assembly plant.
Several of the labs look like sets from a science-fiction movie.

This includes a chamber the size of a small gymnasium whose walls are covered with white foam squares. The walls block out all outside electromagnetic signals, such as those from cellphones, television and radio. In this space, researchers measure the level of electromagnetic activity coming from a vehicle, and they test how it responds when bombarded with intense levels of radio waves.

Elsewhere in the complex, employees maintain a room full of crash-test dummies (officially, they’re called “anthropomorphic test devices”) built to look like women, men and children of various sizes and shapes. Each dummy wears black dress shoes that look as if they came from a thrift store.

The main crash-test space is a long corridor with a slab at one end. Before a crash, workers put on safety glasses and stand behind a series of clear plastic barriers.

“Blink, and you’ll miss it,” one said.

In less than a second, an Odyssey minivan streaks across the room and smacks head-on into the slab. The front crumples, but the rest is almost completely undamaged. Employees wait for a moment and then gather around the wreck to take readings. The room smells like charred nylon, which comes from the material that deploys the airbags.

“Odds are that the occupant would get up and walk out of the car,” said Chuck Thomas, chief engineer for vehicle safety.

Across the hall is a smaller crash-test site that simulates different impact angles. Unlike the main test area, this one doesn’t use whole vehicles. It studies the parts, such as seats and dash components, which get placed in the frame of a vehicle.

The center started in 1991 with a suite of offices that is now the far corner of the complex. At that time, most of the work involved making derivatives of existing models, such as the Accord wagon, which had most of the same components as the Accord sedan.

That changed in 2001 when the office did almost all the development work for the Acura MDX, a completely new model. The center also led the way on the Pilot SUV, the Ridgeline pickup truck and the 2011 redesign of the Odyssey minivan. Of the 18 Honda or Acura models in the current lineup, six were developed at the Raymond office, representing 25 percent of sales.

The NSX is not designed to be a big seller, but it might be the most eagerly awaited vehicle to come out of the center, said Peterson of AutoPacific. The original NSX sold from 1990 to 2005. With a sticker price of about $90,000, the vehicle was a showpiece; sales never topped 2,000 in a year.

The new version will be a gas-electric hybrid, adding another level of complexity to a difficult assignment.

Honda’s CEO, Takanobu Ito, unveiled a preliminary version of the NSX in January, which was when he said the model will be developed and assembled in Ohio.

Paluch, senior vice president at the Honda research center, saw the comments as an affirmation and a challenge.

“Basically, the statement Mr. Ito made is that Honda has grown up its R&D worldwide enough to build a flagship vehicle,” he said.