What does made in the Philippines mean to you?

Chances are, not much. We, as a people, love imported stuff. From our electronics to the very food we eat, a lot of us prefer imported goods... same goes for our cars.

Currently, only a handful of car companies actually have local manufacturing and assembly facilities. Toyota has a sprawling facility in Sta. Rosa, Laguna, along with Honda, Nissan (NMPI), and Ford Group Philippines. Mitsubishi is an odd one out, as they chose Cainta as their base for manufacturing their locally offered models.

What about Isuzu though?

The brand has been around for a very long time, but admittedly, we have never really gotten a chance to take a good look at what goes on in their plant at Santa Rosa, Laguna. So, when they gave us a call for a plant visit, we thought it might be interesting to see how they manufacture vehicles that have been prime choices for business and many families all around the country.

The original invite was for us to actually take part in the assembly process on the line, but the manufacturing executives are understandably keen on keeping to a very tight “tact time” per unit, and thus we were not actually permitted to get a hands on feel on building an Isuzu ourselves. Its just as well, as I'm sure they would've been sweating bullets had we taken part on the assembly line, especially when it comes to keeping their impressive safety record intact.

When we arrived at their plant, we were briefed on what they manufacture here. With the exception of the Alterra and a few of the special duty large trucks (i.e. an off-road delivery N-Series) which are completely built-up units from either Japan or Thailand, all of Isuzu's models are actually assembled here: the long-standing Crosswind, the tough D-Max, the N-Series, F-Series and even bare frames and engines for buses.

After a rather lively safety briefing, we took part in a traditional process that every Japanese company follows religiously: morning exercises. It's a little amusing, especially with the Radio Taisho playing in the background, but they do take it seriously, even having regular competitions for the employees for the best exercise routine. It's quite refreshing and a great way to get someone ready for the day's work, which lends me to wonder why there aren't more companies, locally owned or otherwise, that do religious morning exercises the way they do.

Afterwards, we proceeded on to the main assembly floor. The assembly process actually begins with the body shop and metal finish, where the bare bodies are assembled, sanded and prepared to accept a coat of rustproofing material and paint.

Unfortunately, due to the delicate, almost clinical nature of the paint shop, we were not permitted inside, as paint technicians have to be fully suited to prevent loose hair from getting onto the bare metal bodies being painted. When the bodies have been given their designated paintjob, they are then carted off into the main assembly floor to await further assembly.

There are three main assembly professes undertaken inside the plant. Isuzu uses their internal codes for them: TBR for the Crosswind series, TFR for the D-MAX series, and a separate line for all the trucks such as the NHR, NKR and others.

Have a conversation with their plant managers and foremen and you'll see that they take great pride in the work that they do here. With a relatively low volume of production compared to the massive plant in Thailand, Isuzu Philippines has some tools and processes that are uniquely their own; developed in-house over years of experience.

Instead of massive parts bins where assemblers just pick out part after part, they use a “kit cart” system. Color coded for every vehicle and every station, each cart has been pre-loaded with all the necessary parts that an assembler needs for a particular station. For example, a kit cart for a TFR would have different racks and hangers compared to the one used in the TBR, making it easy for an assembler to finish everything at his station. And, like a kit box for the R/C cars of our youths, its easy to know if you missed a step because there would be a part or parts left over.

Having such a system means they have very strict “tact times” per car at every station. Generally, they stick to 14 minutes per car for the assembler, something made apparent by the sound and lights of every siren. More on that later.

On the chassis assembly side, workers skillfully install engines, electronics, suspension systems and other hoses and wirings necessary for operation. Unlike other high output assembly plants abroad, IPC's plant employs highly skilled assemblers from various walks of life.

Though often perceived as a predominantly male working environment, there are numerous women working around in various jobs. Some are fitting wiring harnesses inside the yet empty engine bay, some were inside the bodies to fit internal equipment. Some are even graduates of Isuzu's technician scholarship program in Leyte, displaying their skills on IPC's stage here at Santa Rosa.

With both the body and the chassis completed, the body is hoisted onto the frame to be mated. All of Isuzu's vehicles here have body-on-frame construction, making for an easier marriage process as opposed to the more complex unibody vehicles (i.e. crossovers). After all the controls, wiring and other systems are fitted, then the unit heads on for a quality check at the orange painted boxes.

There are actually a multitude of sirens, lights and alarm bells; each with a particular meaning. Some signify break times and lunch times, a particular sound tells an assembler that the “tact time” has been reached, while another one stops all kart traffic (employees drive electric shuttles around the floor, delivering parts and kit carts) so that a fully assembled unit can head on out safely for its test driver to check its various systems and functions.

Before a completed unit heads on out for testing, they perform several checks on it by placing it on a rolling road to test its speed and power, as well as other preliminary checks. Afterwards, the driver then pulls a cord that starts the sirens for parts shuttles to stop where they are and clear the path out.

I got a chance to drive out in a newly assembled Isuzu TBR, err, Crosswind, and took it out on the test course. After promptly yanking the stop traffic siren, we proceeded outside. Fresh from assembly, this particular Crosswind was the base model, the XUV. There's no feeling like driving a brand new engine, even if it is a dated, pre-chamber diesel like the one at the heart of this Crosswind. Pulling off the line, it feels fresh. They haven't fitted the little details yet like the shift knob, but that will come later as a finishing touch.

First is a test of the unit's turning radius, so out on the skidpad we go. After it conforms to standards, I then veered towards the brake test. Unlike most other braking tests, this one entails letting go of the wheel and stomping on the brakes, just to determine if it pulls to one side or not. If the wheel pulls either left or right under braking, it's noted and sent back to be fixed. None in this case.

After the brake test, I double back to the other lane which is the rattle test. The lane is actually very rough, and is intended to bring out any niggles with the car to the test driver's attention. Any rattle or creak is noted, and will be sent back to the line to be sorted out. Again, top marks for this TBR, not to mention that it was done in relative comfort; a testament to the brand's FlexRide suspension.

Lastly, we then drove the Crosswind into a shed for the leak test. Up the ramp and on the platform, the little shed is dotted with numerous high pressure shower valves much like a drive-thru carwash. The TBR is sprayed with water continuously for 3 minutes from all directions: from the top, the sides and even underneath, simulating the intense typhoon showers we get during the rainy season. Leaks and imperfections will certainly show up, and in this particular unit, it was leaking on the A-Pillar. The leak was noted and we subsequently sent the car back to the line to get fixed.

This is the process they do here everyday, for every model, every hour. It's a rigorous system, but Isuzu Philippines Corporation is highly committed on keeping up their quality and capacity of 12,000 units a year.

Time and again, the Filipino laborer has always proved his or her capability for quality, efficient work, which is why I sometimes wonder why our automotive industry isn't anywhere near as big as our ASEAN neighbors; primarily Thailand. Over there, Isuzu Philippines' Thailand counterpart can manufacture nearly 20 times as much in a year with an output of 240,000 units; way more than the cars sold in the Philippines for the industry as a while. Such is the rate by which we've left behind.

There are many reasons, of course; some involve economics, most involve government policies, high taxes and corruption. Such is the reality of our local auto industry.

Maybe someday we'll get to where Thailand is now, and from the hard work and dedication to quality we saw that day at Isuzu Philippines Corporation's plant in Santa Rosa, Laguna, it most definitely is possible.