Almost forty years after its inception, Nissan's Sunderland plant (which has been in operation since 1986) will become the European production hub for the Japanese manufacturer's new line of zero-emission vehicles. The British plant will produce 100% electric versions of the Qashqai and Juke and the new generation of the Leaf, which has been electric since its inception, inspired by the Hyper Punk, Chillout and Hyper Urban concepts. 

But while waiting to be definitively converted into a complex dedicated to the mobility of the future, today, the factory seems more active than ever. With its 3 million square metres and 7,000 employees, Sunderland produces around 300,000 cars a year (but at full capacity, it can be close to 500,000): one every two minutes. These are the new Qashqai and Juke, but it is the third generation of the largest crossover that takes centre stage.

Two lines for Qashqai and Juke

There are two active lines in Sunderland. From the first comes the all-new Qashqai e-Power, which will reach dealerships across Europe in the coming weeks. The second line, on the other hand, houses both Qashqai and Juke and can vary the number of the two models in real time according to market demand. Because of this difference, the first line has a faster turnaround time, taking 14 hours for each car, while the second line completes the cycle on one car in about 24 hours.

Production of the Nissan Qashqai at the UK plant in Sunderland

Production of the Nissan Qashqai at the UK plant in Sunderland

A special feature of the Sunderland plant is its vocation for the circular economy: waste steel and aluminium, plastic, paint or wood are in fact fed into a virtuous circuit that allows them to be reused. In addition, the plant also houses two photovoltaic parks producing a total of 25 megawatts and ten 7-megawatt wind turbines. Together they provide 20 per cent of the energy needed to run the plant.

The production process

Numerous operations are carried out in the various departments of the British complex. Production of the cars starts at the battery pack assembly point: two-module for the Juke and four-module for the Qashqai. This is where 73 workers take about 40 minutes to make the entire accumulator (the cells arrive made and finished from the nearby AESC gigafactory), performing a total of 49 operations.

Production of the Nissan Qashqai at the UK plant in Sunderland

Battery assembly for the e-Power versions of Qashqai and Juke

Then there is the moulding department, which hosts a major innovation. In fact, the new Nissan Qashqai is the first car in the plant's history to have some aluminium panels used in combination with steel ones. This innovation saves about 60 kg in weight, which is good for efficiency and fuel consumption.

Interestingly, all scrap metal from the moulding operations is recycled, which results in energy savings of around 90 per cent. The process here is highly automated, and in fact relatively few workers are employed in the department: 449.

The skeleton of the new Qashqai car takes shape in the body shop, the 54,000 square metre department where body parts are assembled. There are about a thousand robots taking care of this stage.

Production of the Nissan Qashqai at the UK plant in Sunderland

Waste-free painting

The body then moves on to the paint shop. Here, too, Sunderland boasts state-of-the-art technology.

Both because it relies on an innovative nozzle and colour tank washing system and can paint cars in any colour without pausing in the process, and because all waste paint is collected with special filters and reused in construction or in the making of pedestrian crossings and road signs.

The Qashqai cars then proceed to the line to receive interior trim, seats, windows and, of course, all mechanical parts. There are 1,477 workers in charge of assembling the interior and the 'marriage' between body and powertrain.

Between present and future

"We are proud to call the Sunderland plant the home of the Qashqai," explained Adam Pennick, Nissan UK's Vice President Manufacturing, "and we look forward to hearing how our customers appreciate the new design and technology".

Production of the Nissan Qashqai at the UK plant in Sunderland

The history of the relationship between the Qashqai and Sunderland has deep roots. The first model of the SUV was produced at the plant near the Scottish border. That was in 2006, and in eighteen years some four and a half million of them have been sold, including 120 thousand with the e-Power system.

As mentioned at the outset, the Sunderland plant remains central to Nissan's industrial strategy. This refers to the plan named EV36Zero that will lead to the production of three new concept vehicles. "We are preparing our plant to go fully electric", Pennick added. The goal is to make production 100% electric by 2030.

To do this, Nissan wants to turn 40 per cent of total production to zero-electric as early as 2026. By that year, half of the zero-emission vehicles will be plug in hybrids while half will be full electric.

Gallery: Nissan: The Sunderland factory where the new Qashqai was born