SOUTHFIELD, MICH. — Lear Corp. is building an advanced process development center that will allow the supplier to test virtually every known automotive interior manufacturing process.
The 25,000-square-foot-center, being constructed at Lear's Southfield headquarters, will feature a museum-quality display of state-of-the-art plastics processing equipment and materials for interior automotive parts. Lear officials said that, to their knowledge, no other molder could boast the same array of all-encompassing processes under one roof.
The facility, which plans to open by September, features a marriage of molding operations both popular and emerging. The machinery roll call will include presses for injection, compression and blow molding, as well as equipment for thermoforming, extrusion and sheet and film laminating.
In addition, the center will include Lear's patented Surebond and Drybond seat-covering process, an oxidizing process to blow sheet foam onto cover stock, interior sound-dampening equipment, a glass-reinforced-urethane work cell, a water-jet material-cutting system, dielectric analysis equipment and such secondary processes as sonic, vibration and electromagnetic welding.
An advanced-prototyping tooling shop also will occupy a corner of the facility for work on new ceramic casting and rapid production tooling techniques. Ultimately, a tool-shop goal is to complete a cut production tool the same day a computer-aided-design file is downloaded.
For the plastics industry, a comparable operation is found at GE Plastics' Polymer Processing Development Center in Pittsfield, Mass. That 96,000-square-foot facility, used for material and product testing, can pass resins through virtually any molding process, said Jack Avery, manager of operational assets at the center.
However, while Lear's focus is on the automotive market, GE's test site focuses on a variety of markets and the startup of new resin products, Avery said.
``The center has been quite important to GE's operations,'' he said.
Lear's process center is part of the company's $20 million expansion of its Southfield-based research and development facilities. The expansion, which is under way, includes new-product development areas, customer focus group sites, four styling studios and a test facility, said Daniel Jannette, Lear's technology division vice president. Much of the work is expected to be completed this fall.
That expansion ultimately will force the company's administrative offices to move to a new, three-story building on its wooded, 28-acre campus. The administration building, projected to be about 8,000 square feet, is expected to be completed by the end of 1998, Jannette said.
In some ways, the process center is the linchpin for the expansion. The company expects the site not only to turn heads in the automotive industry, where Lear can showcase its work to carmakers, but to give the supplier a leg up among systems providers in an intense, competitive environment.
``New product designs largely come from our customers ... who are out to sell cars,'' said Jack Van Ert, Lear's director of advanced process development. ``Where we can make the most difference is coming up with the next generation of processes to make [an interior system] better, faster, operate quieter and be less costly. That's where the center gives us a big advantage.''
The test site was created virtually from scratch on the location of a former in-house foundry that was moved to another building. Stark-white walls, tile floors and large display signs were added to turn the center into a centerpiece for automotive visitors. Lear also plans to use the area as an educational center for workers at its 45 plants worldwide.
The center takes the burden of process development from the plants and allows them to focus on production, Van Ert said. He added that, in the past, there were times when new-process testing was a lower priority at the plants due to time constraints.
``It sometimes was easier for them to keep the traditional processes, even though there might have been something better,'' he said. ``Now, we can free them to do production work. They can keep their heads in production and we can pass on ways to help them do their job at a higher level.''
In addition, the center will help Lear develop new products for emerging markets such as India, where the company is beginning to do business, Jannette said. Lear currently has plants in 23 countries.
``You might not be able to use the same materials in other parts of the world,'' Jannette said. ``So we need to find out which processes work best with the materials used in those countries.''
The company will test a variety of thermoplastic resins and thermoset compounds under a hodgepodge of processing operations. A possible goal is the elimination of secondary processes such as trimming, Jannette said.
Materials tested will include a variety of polyurethane foams used by Lear, interior substrates made of polypropylene and several types of cover skins. A foam laboratory will be available at the site.
Some of the equipment will be purchased by Lear and some will be on consignment by equipment manufacturers wanting to get their new presses tested before full-scale commercial launch. Material manufacturers also plan to use the center to test new formulations, Van Ert said.
Equipment and resins could be shuttled in and out of the facility, depending on the project and process, he added.
The center includes a horizontal electric injection molding press on consignment from Cincinnati Milacron. The press, which has a clamping force of 725 tons, is one of two electric presses currently in use in North America, according to Van Ert.
Cincinnati Milacron officials were unavailable to verify that fact.
The company plans to perform such processes as gas-assisted, low-pressure and preform injection molding with the press.
Larger equipment at the site includes a Cavenaghi-Ridolfi compression press with 250 tons of clamping force, an Astex laminator capable of using powder and liquid materials and a Canon oxide machine, which creates a thick foam material blown in a narrow stream into a part.
Coming by the end of the year are a twin-screw extruder with a side cram feeder for fillers and reinforcements and a three-layer blow molding machine. Contracts for both pieces of equipment are still being signed.
The idea for the center was planted while Jannette and Van Ert worked at Automotive Industries Corp., an injection molder in Rochester Hills, Mich., that Lear purchased in 1995. The large resources of a company the size of Lear helped the idea come to fruition, Jannette said.
``Everybody I know in the industry wants to have something like this,'' Jannette said. ``It's good to see a center that we thought was needed for a long time become more than just a good idea.''