• Reuters


In the Chinese coastal province of Jiangsu, where supply chains have been severed by the coronavirus outbreak, one auto supplier has already shifted production of parts for Mazda Motor Corp. to a site 13,000 kilometers away, in central Mexico’s Guanajuato state.

The bid to keep production lines moving comes at a high cost for Japan’s auto industry, already squeezed by a downturn in consumer demand in markets at home and in the United States and China.

To deal with a Chinese production shortage of a component used in the exterior trim of the Mazda3 and CX-30 models, the supplier cranked up output of the part at its Mexico plant by 50 percent and started airlifting it to Mazda’s assembly line in Japan, according to a person at the supplier with direct knowledge of the matter.

In total, the move has cost Mazda more than $5 million (¥530 million), the person said, citing extra shifts and air freight charges.

“Substitute production costs an arm and a leg. But Mazda doesn’t want to stop production and has asked us to keep our supply coming. They are taking on the expense,” said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity and asked that the supplier or the part not be named.

A Mazda spokeswoman said the company is “assessing various countermeasures for swift recovery while minimizing the impact on production at the same time.”

Although Mexico provided a solution for the Mazda supplier, it too is bracing for a supply crunch, with local officials warning that disruptions to parts shipments from China could deal a blow to its own auto manufacturing industry.

Many Japanese suppliers also manufacture in the United States, Europe and Asia.

As one of Japan’s smaller automakers, Mazda trails rivals Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. in sales and production capacity. To keep costs down, it has for years focused on sharing as many parts as possible across its lineup.

Relatively low volume and the standardized design and production model also give Mazda and its suppliers more flexibility when considering options for shifting production, a Mazda insider said.

Larger automakers, which require a higher volume of parts and typically use a wider variety of components across their models, may find themselves with fewer options.

Vehicle sales in China for Japan’s top three automakers plunged by as much as 85 percent last month as demand in the world’s top car market took a pummeling from the virus outbreak. China’s automaking association was prompted to call on the government for tax cuts and other measures to support sales.

Meanwhile, output of LED headlights and taillights at Koito Manufacturing’s plant in China’s Hubei province, where the virus that causes COVID-19 was first identified, ground to a halt in February after the Chinese government ordered offices, schools and factories to close.

While partial operations resumed last week, the company — the world’s biggest maker of automotive lighting and a supplier to Toyota, Nissan and others — is preparing to move some production elsewhere to fulfill export orders, a Koito spokeswoman said, adding that it is discussing arrangements with clients.

“There are lamps that we make for vehicle models made in North America, Japan and China, which are fairly similar between those regions,” she said, declining to give further details about its plans to shift production.

Time and cost concerns mean other suppliers will be less keen to follow the example of Koito and the Mazda supplier, despite expectations it will take months for manufacturing output in China to return to normal.

Kasai Kogyo, which supplies Honda with interior door trim and roof parts, said it is looking at the possibility of shifting production from its Wuhan plant to one of the many plants it operates in North America, Europe and Asia, but doing so would drive up costs and take months to organize.

The parts it produces are among the largest used in cars and are cast from dies, which can be model- and country-specific and difficult to transport because they can weigh hundreds of kilograms.

“Dies take months to produce, up to a year for bigger ones,” personnel manager Yohei Shinoda said. “So the process to shift production of a part from one plant to another isn’t as easy as it may seem.”

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