GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. - The car moves swiftly along a darkened, two-lane road, its headlight beams catching trees and utility poles in sudden illumination as they flash by. But rather than a real drive through the night, the view is from a virtual trip in the country on a computer screen at Lescoa Inc., a Grand Rapids-based molder of lighting and interior components.
The computer-based ``light road simulation'' is part of the company's efforts to maintain a technological edge in an increasingly competitive automotive supply industry.
Lescoa's computer simulation is no mere game. Data culled from the program is used to improve tooling design. Lescoa, for example, can use the computer to design a headlamp with a more consistent beam of light, one that does not display the dark streaking or ``picket fence'' effect. Thus, computer simulation can eliminate much of the rework usually associated with building production molds, and speed the product to market.
``We can't just be a shoot-and-ship supplier, because they will go by the wayside,'' Lescoa Chairman Leslie E. Tassell said in a recent interview at the firm's headquarters. ``We've got to be a superior innovator.''
The company, with sales of about $170 million last year, projects annual growth of 10-15 percent for the next two years. Tassell declined to predict just how big Lescoa will get. But the firm, which Tassell founded in 1945 as Leslie Metal Arts Co., is determined to remain independent.
``It's pretty much a family company,'' he said.
In automotive, which makes up more than 90 percent of Lescoa's sales, the company's main products are lighting and instrument panel components. It also makes center consoles, cupholders, glove boxes, coolant surge tanks and ashtrays. An extensive in-house stamping operation supplies metal parts for Lescoa components and to other auto suppliers.
In lighting, Lescoa has been involved principally in the production of taillamps, side signal lamps and center high-mount stoplights.
But forward lighting is viewed as an important growth area. Les-coa is supplying all of the exterior lighting on the new Plymouth Prowler, a project the company views as a high-profile demonstration of its headlamp capabilities.
And, for the past four years, Lescoa has had a technology-sharing agreement with Zizala Lichtsysteme GmbH (ZKW) of Wieselburg, Austria, a manufacturer of forward lighting.
``We're working hard to increase our knowledge of light sources and optics of all kinds,'' Tassell said.
Lescoa has six manufacturing plants in the Grand Rapids area that employ 1,200. The company's largest customers are Chrysler Corp. and General Motors Corp. and it is working to expand its base among all North American assemblers and major suppliers.
For automakers, Lescoa developed a just-in-time delivery system that lands instrument panels, center consoles and other parts at the assembly plant in sequence with vehicle build schedules.
Hourly personnel at a Lescoa facility in Grand Rapids mold and paint center consoles for the Chevrolet Cavalier, which is built in GM's Lordstown, Ohio, assembly plant. Workers load the consoles into a rack fitted with 24 cells, or pigeonhole-type compartments. Each cell and console is labeled with a bar code used to record the part type and rack location on a computer linked to the assembly plant.
The racks are loaded onto Les-coa trucks for the two-a-day trips to Lordstown, where the racks are unloaded and brought to the assembly line in sequence. There, the parts are matched to the Cavaliers according to vehicle identification number.
In the same Lescoa plant, workers assemble and sequentially ship a partially built instrument panel - minus the foam top piece, radio and instrument cluster - for the Pontiac Sunfire. The components are assembled, finished and packed for shipping only 55 minutes after completion of the molding cycle.
Lescoa also is doing the lower instrument panel for the Chrysler LH series with a compression molded, glass-filled polypropylene. The compression molded carrier eliminates a number of metal brackets typically used in dashboards and is much less prone to squeaks and rattles, Tassell said.
For interiors, the company has carved itself an important niche as a designer and producer of cupholders for original equipment manufacturers and major suppliers such as Lear Corp., Magna International Inc. and Johnson Controls Inc.
On the Chrysler minivan, Les-coa supplies a cupholder with a ratcheting arm adjustable to four different cup sizes. It has developed a number of other concepts, such as the adjustable cupholder fitted into a door panel or armrest.
Outside of automotive, Lescoa produces parts for the appliance and office furniture industry. The company recently developed a one-piece, injection molded, nylon seat shell for the upgraded ``Purpose'' chair manufactured by Kimball Office Furniture Co. of Jasper, Ind. The new seat shell is stronger and cheaper than the two-piece, injection molded part it replaced.
In automotive, expansion outside of North America is a possibility as the world's emerging markets develop more vehicle manufacturing. Brazil is a current focus for Lescoa's expansion efforts.
But Tassell is not convinced that bigger necessarily is better. And some of his automotive customers are becoming worried about the concentration of the supply base among a few large companies, he said.
``The bigger you get, the more costs you get,'' Tassell said.