For Erik Fields, the internal combustion engine and everything else beneath the hood or chassis of a vehicle have been a source of fascination since childhood. It’s an interest with deep roots, and it has accelerated his path to success in the automotive industry.
His grandfather was manager of production in the brakes division of General Motors in Dayton, Ohio, and it just seemed natural for Fields to get hooked on motorsports — from the sound of an engine revving to the aroma of exhaust fumes. “Cars have always been a part of my life, ” Fields says. “I grew up on a farm, and we would keep the cars and tractors running ourselves. You didn’t take anything to a mechanic. If something needed to be done, we worked on it in the barn.”
As director of engineering for Nissan North America’s Canton, Mississippi, assembly plant for the past two years, Fields, now 38, has revved up the rpms from tinkering with tractors in a barn to pacing pristine factory floors where shiny new parts and products meet. The 4.7 million-square-foot facility employs 6, 400 people and has made more than 3 million vehicles since it opened in 2003.
“The thing I’ve enjoyed so much about automotive is that I’ve never repeated the same day here, ” Fields says. “In my entire career of 15 years, I may have the same issues, but the causes are different, and we always approach the solution in a different way with different groups. It takes so many autonomous groups to make a car — the stamping department, the body department — the entire plant is just a body shop, and we have to pull it all together. Every day, I go to all of these individual shops that are so dramatically different in what they do. The technicians are performing very different operations. I work in those every single day, and I think that’s very cool.”
While in college earning his bachelor of science in industrial engineering from Ohio University, Fields spent three years working for Worthington Industries, which supplies steel to the automotive industry. His minor was in business, preparing him for the management side of the industry. After graduation, he was hired as an engineer by Honda of America Manufacturing where he worked until 2007.
“My role was new mobile development, ” Fields says. “We were the liaison between designer and supplier to get them ready for mass production.”
Fields’ team would gather all of the material and build the parts needed in time for assembly to move in an uninterrupted flow. From there, he transitioned to parts quality and then to parts readiness.
Fields spent six years with Honda in Marysville, Ohio, then worked in South Carolina to start a new model division. In 2007, he joined Nissan as an engineer in parts quality to support production, then became manager of a test and evaluation lab for Parts Quality Assurance (PQA) from 2008-2010.
The ins and outs of ensuring consumer satisfaction with every aspect of the vehicle offered a new perspective in auto manufacturing. “We addressed customer impact issues, like squeak and rattle, how fast the window goes up or down, seat comfort issues, the way a car rides, ” Fields says. “It was a complex investigation.”
The Canton plant’s flagship products are the Titan and Titan XD pickup trucks. It also produces the Altima, the NV Cargo, the NV Passenger, the Frontier King Cab, the Frontier Crew Cab and the Murano. Perfecting drive satisfaction issues was Fields’ focus from 2008 to 2010, when he moved into the new model side of manufacturing, working on getting vehicles launched in the plant. He earned his MBA from Ole Miss in 2009 and became senior manager of the manufacturing program management from 2010-2014 and worked on the 2016 MY Titan, 2013 MY Altima, 2012 MY LCV-BUS and all minor models.
When Fields was promoted to director of engineering for the Canton plant, he took charge of every function of the plant in programs performance. New Model Development Leaders in the plant indirectly report to him as the “Seisan Shutan” (program manager).
The demands for Fields are many, but the rewards of an ever-changing environment are the motivation to come to work. “If you’re making Coke bottles on a line, there are not as many functions as you have in an auto plant, ” Fields says. “It may be easier, but it’s not as dynamic when it comes to what each group does. I enjoy putting myself in the customer’s shoes and thinking how we can do things better.”
When he was tinkering with cars on the farm, he never envisioned attaining such a lofty position at a company that brought the first automotive production line to Mississippi, creating jobs for residents of 61 of the state’s 82 counties.
“I never would have thought it, ” Fields says. “I’ve always known I wasn’t afraid of hard work, and I worked to put myself through school. I had the early and sustained exposure in my work at the Honda plant where I was promoted to coordinator within three years. That’s pretty quick in Honda’s ranks. I’ve enjoyed the success and been blessed about it, but there is no way I could have imagined the way my career has grown.”
While in South Carolina, Fields met his wife, Joly, a Mississippi native, in 2003 through mutual friends. The two were married in 2006, and during a Christmas trip to her home in Mississippi, the couple realized that was where they wanted to settle to raise a family.
Nissan’s Mississippi operation is only two hours away from Joly’s family, and the proximity helps with the couple’s children Carter, 8, Hudson, 5, and Tatum, 2.
Already, Fields’ sons are showing interest in cars, though video games rank a bit higher on the priority list to date.
“When they visit here, I let them see through the window on the car production line, ” Fields says. “They think I build the cars. They’ll ask how many we built today, and I’ll say 1, 600. They’re definitely catching on to the fascination.”
Fields is constantly seeking the best technical solution in the manufacturing process. He spearheaded efforts on the Nissan Altima design launched in 2012, managing the ergonomics and assembly method. On the Titan, his current project, he and his team argued vociferously for a two-tone paint job.
“It was going to require a double pass in the paint system, and if you run one vehicle twice, you lose building one unit, ” Fields says. “It’s very labor intensive and quality intensive work. In the product planning, we kept pushing it forward. If you buy a high-grade truck, you’ll expect a two-tone package on it. Finally, we were able to find a compromise. We gave some concessions and were able to adopt a two-tone process that works for us.”
That solution involved creating an additional conveyor system for rerouting the vehicles and special platforms to mask the areas for paint. The vehicles were then run through the conveyor system, first to paint the bottom and then to paint the top. “Sometimes you have to come up with special equipment or some design concessions to make the best product, ” says Fields, who drives a Titan as his personal vehicle. The sheer size of the vehicle makes it one of the hardest for Nissan to build.
A 2016 study by Mississippi State University, found that Titan supports nearly 25, 000 jobs at Nissan and other businesses in central Mississippi.
“It’s complex and a lot more complicated to build than a lot of our other vehicles, ” Fields says. “It’s a challenge for us, and I enjoy that.”
Automobile designs are essential to attracting buyers, he says, but the quality behind that design has to support the driver’s needs.
“Everybody is enticed by a sports car or a visually-appealing or high-performance vehicle, ” Fields says. “At the end of the day, the cars still have to have a good door fit, a good body fit, all of the functions have to work. That’s my job — to be sure the manufacturing process can build a good car. I’m not interested in working on just one car. That’s why I like the automotive industry. It’s not about a specific model but about how these vehicles function.”
Fields may have moved to the Deep South, where the pace is supposed to be slower, but he’s not easing up on the accelerator.
“The plant is absolutely full of energy, and everyone comes in with that sense of energy, ” Fields says. “Things are constantly going on, and you have all of these sights, sounds and smells. You could blindfold me, and I could tell you exactly what area of the plant I was in — I would recognize the paint smell or oil on the coils. It’s addictive to work at this speed with the pace and activity in a plant like this. And I love the new car smell. I could never get tired of it. It’s like the smell of a new tire — absolutely wonderful, like a really good cologne.”
Text by Cara Clark