Becker Group International Inc., a leading automotive parts supplier in Sterling Heights, Mich., is one of a litany of large companies that has decided to go it alone in tooling and design.
With that philosophy, the $1.4 billion manufacturer eschews the use of either outside production tooling or rapid prototyping. Instead, all work is done in-house at two sites that both have undergone significant growth in the past half-decade.
``We believe in controlling our own destiny for rapid prototyping and tooling processes,'' said Craig Schmelzer, executive vice president of Megatech Engineering Inc., Becker's engineering and development group in Warren, Mich. ``And by eliminating the middleman, we can pass the results directly to customers in price reductions. As we all know, price is crucial for business with automakers.''
Becker is one of the few large automotive injection molders to have its own production tooling and rapid prototyping centers. However, other companies are taking the same ride. Large producers — from 3M Co. in St. Paul, Minn., to Sandia National Laboratories Inc., an Albuquerque parts supplier for the Department of Energy — operate their own rapid prototyping and mold-building operations.
``We design prototypes and patterns for all types of government projects,'' said Clint Atwood, rapid prototyping team leader for Sandia Laboratories, which makes parts for nuclear weapons. ``We're constantly looking at new technology to support our mission to make parts faster, better and cheaper.''
3M produces both prototypes and preliminary production molds at its design center in St. Paul, said William Coyne, senior vice president for research and development. The company, which makes more than 500 new products per year, does its own work partly to preserve its ideas.
``We look at ourselves as having some of the most innovative technology in the world,'' Coyne said in a March 11 telephone interview from the 500-acre 3M Center. ``Some of our early conceptual work is not protected by intellectual property rights. We like to keep it confidential, at least until we can apply a patent to a design.''
Speed also is critical at both 3M and Becker. Coyne and Schmelzer said they can create a completed design quickly by handing off prototypes produced by computer-aided design to their research teams. The engineers simultaneously can study the models — sometimes in the actual material for production —as they continue to tweak the design.
At 3M, the goal is to turn around a prototype in a few days as a design goes through numerous iterations, Coyne said.
``It's an interactive process that works best for us if the work is in-house,'' he added.
The company does rapid prototyping for injection molded, blow molded and extruded products in the health-care, pharmaceutical and electronics markets. Recently, 3M tested the use of new polymer-based materials to make its prototypes from CAD imaging, said Coyne, who did not disclose the materials under consideration.
In rapid prototyping, about 50 percent of the work is done by companies in-house, while the other half is outsourced to service bureaus, said Tom Lee, marketing vice president with equipment supplier DTM Corp. in Austin, Texas. Lee estimated the market for rapid prototyping at about $650 million.
Major companies such as Detroit's Big Three automakers, Motorola Inc. and Johnson & Johnson Inc. do some rapid prototyping work themselves, Lee said.
``One school of thought is for a company to use rapid prototyping as a core competency in the design process,'' said Lee, adding that the other school of thought is to outsource to a service bureau. ``The decision can be based on secrecy or quick turnaround, or even that they have to justify a return on investment in equipment.''
At Becker's Megatech center, rapid tooling is a finely tuned science. Since its operation began nearly six years ago, the plant size for its rapid prototyping operation has doubled to more than 52,000 square feet.
Becker uses computer modeling to create three types of prototypes: rough, quickly produced composite design aid models made from cardboard and glue; mass-cast urethane silicone models; and prototype parts from production materials.
The latter process, called 3PM, is a proprietary technique that creates parts from thermoplastics that have similar physical properties as the manufactured components. The 3PM process can produce 50-100 prototype parts at a cost of as much as $140,000 for a typical instrument panel model. The tool can be made in as little as five to six weeks, Schmelzer said.
``Our goal is to get a product on the road quickly,'' he added. ``About 60 percent of time spent for product development is in the design stage. We're always looking for ways to cut down that time.''
For production tooling, the roll call of suppliers doing their own work is shorter. Still, major automotive producers such as Becker have invested considerably in the process.
The supplier owns its own tooling shop, J.B. Rath Co., which produces molds for Becker's interior automotive trim parts and other components. About 10 percent of Rath's business also comes from building molds for outside automotive suppliers and other companies, said Leo Jensen, executive vice president for J.B. Rath.
As Becker continues to grow, so does Rath. The tooling shop is moving into a new, 45,000-square-foot building near Becker's Megatech engineering center and increasing its work force by more than 15 percent, to 280 employees. The expansion, which should be completed by the end of March, will add secondary assembly processes such as vibration and sonic welding.
The company also will add two new computer numerically controlled Axis milling machines, giving Rath a total of 19 CNC machines and duplicators. The company also has purchased a high-speed LeBlond Orbiter electric discharge machining center.
In addition, Rath is following Becker's lead by going into the European market. The company plans to acquire or build a tooling shop in Germany to support the supplier's work there with German and American original equipment manufacturers, Jensen said.
While the company stays primarily internal, it must remain cognizant of the competition from outside tool shops, he said.
``We have to keep close tabs on the outside,'' he said. ``We've got to make sure our prices stay competitive and that we're ahead in technology, just like anyone else. That's how we'll keep growing.''
The growth of in-house tool shops like Rath's does not necessarily mean a decline in outside production houses. Firms such as Commercial Tool & Die Inc., a Comstock Park, Mich., shop, continue to grow by serving automotive suppliers such as Prince Automotive in Holland, Mich.
Commercial Tool, which recorded $11 million in sales last year, recently doubled the size of its plant to 46,750 square feet.
``While there's always competition, I don't see too much of it happening from in-house shops,'' said Commercial Tool sales engineer David Tarrien. ``Since we specialize in tooling, it's hard to beat our quality and expertise. Besides, not many companies are going to want to make the kind of investment required to keep up in this business.''