Quick-Change Artists

WHEN WORKERS AT THE HONDA plant in Marysville, Ohio, punched the time clock last Tuesday morning, it seemed like the start of any other day on the assembly line. There were instrument panels to assemble, seats to install and bolts to tighten. ""Business as usual,'' said plant manager Ron Shriver. But while the workday seemed normal, the plant's 5,800 employees were quietly performing a manufacturing magic trick worthy of David Copperfield. When the assembly line started up at 6:30 a.m., the cars rolling off the end were the trusty, familiar '97 Accords. By the time the second shift had ended after midnight, some of the cars had bigger back seats, longer wheelbases and a different moniker: the all-new '98 Accord.

Track fans know it as the passing of the baton, that perilous moment in a relay that can send a team of Michael Johnsons to the back of the pack. For carmakers, the handoff from one model to the next takes place during a plant changeover, an event that can wreak havoc on bottom lines. To launch a new-and-improved model, most plants shut down for weeks of retooling, and then lose more precious time getting the assembly line back to full speed. In one notoriously poor launch in 1995, months of delays prevented General Motors from building 152,000 Chevrolet Luminas. Such holdups can try dealers' patience and ruin marketing plans; just one botched launch can cost a carmaker $900 million in lost sales, figures Furman Selz analyst Maryann Keller, making it impossible for a new car line to ever turn a profit. Honda, which can change over its plant in a single day, has been leading the race for more than a decade, but competitors say they're determined to close the gap. Says manufacturing consultant James Harbour, who's tracked changeovers for two decades: ""Slow launches are either a big problem, or a big opportunity for improvement.''

For Honda, the one-day changeovers are old hat. The managers leading the drill last week, plant boss Shriver and project leader Tim Downing, declined to talk in detail about the process, but they say there's no secret to their methods. Says Downing: ""It's just a lot of hard work paying off.'' The work begins years earlier in the studio, where stylists work closely with engineers to design a car that requires a minimum of manufacturing tweaks. In the plant, workers start studying the new model a year in advance, and the launch team begins building prototypes up to six months before Job One. By the time the new Accord rolled off the line in Marysville last week, up to 400 prototypes had been built since March. The practice makes perfect: by mid-September, the plant should be cranking out '98 Accords at its usual car-a-minute rate.

Ask U.S. carmakers why they can't match that pace and they'll open fire on Japanese carmakers' underwhelming redesigns. Says Chrysler manufacturing chief Dennis Pawley: ""You'll probably have a tough time telling the difference between a '97 and '98 Accord.'' Like his Big Three colleagues, he says, Honda keeps many of its cars' key measurements--called ""principal locating points''--the same from model to model, so there's no need for massive retooling or plant renovations. Chrysler's strategy, Pawley says, is to accept slower launches as the cost of creating highly stylized cars rather than ""dull square boxes.''

Across town at GM, the longtime laggard in the launch department, quickening the pace has become an obsession. To hear outsiders describe it, Lucy and Ethel were running GM's assembly lines during the early '90s launches. Some plants took more than a year to get to full speed. GM says there's a reason for its slow-motion changeovers: its plants produce multiple versions of vehicles for its six divisions, from Chevrolet to Cadillac. ""Nobody else is building with that kind of complexity,'' says VP and group executive Donald Hackworth. Installing the latest technology in body shops also slowed launches, though it will pay off during future changeovers. But lately GM has been shedding its rep as the laughingstock of launches. GM claims its Saturn plant can now almost match Honda on a simple, low-volume launch. At its Fairfax, Va., plant last fall, manufacturing director Ken Varisco says, GM lost just 7,500 units when launching the new Grand Prix. Says Harbour: ""GM has attacked this problem in a huge way.''

The Big Three will have plenty of chances to refine their start-up skills: at GM engineers hope to roll out a new model every 29 days in years to come. And just as U.S. carmakers have nearly closed the gaps with the Japanese in measurements like quality and productivity, it seems inevitable that Honda's launch-speed supremacy will slowly diminish. Managers in Marysville swear they don't hear footsteps. ""We're a moving target,'' boasts project leader Downing. Besides, they're too busy to look back. After all, there's a new Accord to launch in 2001.