DETROIT - Ford Motor Co.'s Automotive Components Division is preparing to introduce a host of new plastic processing technologies into its factories and is winning business outside of Ford, most notably among Japanese companies. Last week, ACD - the auto-maker's main parts-making operation, with more than $10 billion in sales - dedicated a new, $32 million engineering test facility near its headquarters in Dearborn, Mich. The company hopes the new facility will improve the quality and reliability of its plastic electronic and climate-control components.
Also last week, the division won the Society of Plastics Engineers Automotive Division Grand Award for the integrated front-end system on the 1996 Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable. The award, given for the most innovative use of plastics in the 1995 model year, was shared with suppliers Budd Co. and Autodie International Inc.
In plastics, ACD is preparing major moves into areas such as gas-assist injection molding, co-injection, in-mold decorating and low-pressure molding. After years of relatively little change in plastics technology, ACD is viewing the new processes as a key to maintaining its competitiveness with both Ford and other business it is pursuing glo-bally.
``All of these things are emerging at about the sametime,'' said Frank Macher, a Ford vice president and general manager of the components division. ``We're starting to make some breakthroughs.''
He should know. Macher joined Ford in 1966 as a manufacturing development engineer in plastics processing at the company's instrument and plastics plant in Saline, Mich. He was named plant manager at Saline in 1975 and went on to a number of management positions in Ford's plastics, climate-control, electronics and Asia-Pacific operations. He was named general manager of ACD in May 1994.
In an interview, Macher was enthusiastic about ACD's success in winning business as a supplier to Japanese auto-makers. Most recently, the unit has been selected as a supplier of dashboard instrument clusters to Honda Motor Co. Ltd. for an undisclosed future vehicle.
Ford, he said, has been working for the better part of a decade to overcome the lingering suspicion among some Japanese automakers that American components are inferior.
``Our quality is now at a point where we're equal to the best of the Japanese,'' Macher said.
Within the past two years, ACD has also won new business supplying a compact disc player and radio to Nissan Motor Co., and speed controls to Toyota Motor Corp. In electronics, which Macher describes as an ACD strength, the division also supplies Mazda Motor Corp., in which Ford has a 25 percent ownership stake.
With Ford continually raising the demands for quality and cost reduction for its outside suppliers, Macher said the new Japanese business gives ACD increased credibility with its main customers: the five vehicle design centers at Ford.
In Dearborn, there has been ``a great deal of discussion'' about ACD's future as a captive parts maker, Macher said. What has emerged is a sense that ACD will retain and develop parts-making technologies that are critical to the personality of the vehicle.
``You really never want to give that up,'' Macher said.
In plastics, ACD is investing heavily in new processing technology.
Last month, the division announced it will invest $60 million in its Utica, Mich., trim plant to produce a new generation of bumper fascia and taillamp housings. It also plans to set up an operation to do low-pressure molding of inner door panels.
Ford also sees big opportunities in coinjection molding. Parts could be made with a high-quality finish over a low-cost core of recycled plastic.
Ford recently showed samples of bumper fascias molded with a coinjection process at a technology exhibition. It also said it was preparing to deliver coinjection presses to three of its plastics plants by the first quarter of 1996, following tool trials and prototype molding this year.
Suppliers involved in the project include D&S Plastics, GE Plastics Battenfeld GmbH, Engel North America and Epco. At K'95 last month in Dusseldorf, Germany, Engel said it was building a coinjection press for Ford with 4,000 tons of clamping force.
Outside of new technology and production equipment, ACD is looking for productivity increases in parts design and manufacturing now that it has integrated the formerly separate electronics, climate control and plastics divisions.
The new divisional structure also should help ACD respond to the demands of standardized global vehicle development under the Ford 2000 reorganization plan. Uniform design procedures, more commonality of parts across vehicle lines and flexible manufacturing systems are major objectives.
ACD also is looking for ways to wring more production out of its existing manufacturing capacity rather than building new plants, Macher said. Using a common set of material specifications in North America and Europe, for example, might provide savings on volume purchases of resins and better use of processing capacity.
On the resin pricing front, ACD is expecting some relief. A year ago, with production interruptions in the resin supply base, and higher demand across the board, prices shot up.
``The demand and supply are more in balance now,'' Macher said. ``We're hoping that shortly we're going to see a little more softening of prices.''