Two of the world's largest suppliers of plastic composite air-intake manifolds have formed a joint venture specifically to go after a budding North American market for the engine components.
The companies—CMI International Inc. of Southfield, Mich., and Mecaplast International of Monaco—signed a letter of intent June 25 to pool their considerable resources. The partners will combine know-how to boost sales of vibration welded and lost-core manifolds and develop polymer composites for engine components.
The parts makers also plan to open a joint manufacturing plant in North America within the next two years. In all likelihood, the plant will make welded manifolds and other powertrain components and assemblies, said John Haley, CMI product manager for polymer engineering.
Ultimately, the companies hope to make complete air-intake systems for automakers.
``That's what carmakers are looking for,'' Haley said. ``If we can combine related underhood parts in one assembled system, we can significantly lower costs.''
The venture links two pioneering companies in the blossoming field of plastic manifolds. CMI and Mecaplast already have a working relationship dating to October, when CMI began producing the manifolds, made from a glass-filled nylon material, at its Petersburg, Mich., plant.
The companies hope to take advantage of what they envision to be a flourishing market for welded manifolds, a technique that bonds two halves formed from a basic clamshell design. The technique, now used widely in Europe, has yet to catch fire among Big Three U.S. automakers.
``It's large in Europe, but in North America, no [carmaker] uses welded manifolds in current programs,'' said Joel Kopinsky, principal of ITB Group Ltd., an automotive consulting firm in Novi, Mich. ``However, it's definitely coming. I expect to see quite a few welded manifolds start in production by around the year 2000.''
By that year, CMI predicts that welded manifolds will make up about 12 percent of the North American market.
Mecaplast, which recorded estimated sales of about $200 million in 1996, is one of Europe's largest producers of welded manifolds. The company makes the manifolds for PSA/Peugeot-Citroen SA, Renault SA and Mercedes-Benz AG, among others, said Mecaplast development engineer Jerome Nardoux, who is stationed at CMI's technical center in Ferndale, Mich.
The company wants to increase its North American presence, Nardoux said. Mecaplast has five plastic manifold manufacturing plants, but none of them are west of the Atlantic Ocean.
``It's a global market,'' Nardoux said. ``Clearly, the way for us to grow outside Europe is with a market leader.''
The CMI venture is the second in North America for Mecaplast. In 1994, the European molder teamed up with automotive supplier Freudenberg-NOK of Plymouth, Mich., to make composite engine and transmission parts. The venture, called Auttocom, led to the production of manifolds using the lost-core method at Freudenberg's Manchester, N.H., plant.
However, in October, the Auttocom venture was sold to CMI. Since then, the supplier has been shifting the manifold business to its Petersburg plant and one in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, which operates under the name Industrias Fronterizas CMI SA de CV. Mecaplast has provided technical support during the transition.
In Petersburg, located near the Ohio-Michigan border, the company has invested more than $40 million to move the Auttocom work into an existing building. The 127,000-square-foot plant includes five injection presses, all with clamping force of 1,000 tons. The Mexican plant uses seven presses with clamping forces of 750-1,000 tons.
CMI, which recorded 1996 sales of $618.3 million, expects to produce about 3 million manifolds annually through the 1999 model year, Haley said. It primarily makes manifolds for the Big Three and Nissan Motor Corp. USA.
CMI also operated five foundries producing aluminum, iron and steel products and three machining and assembly centers.
The partners emphasized that the joint venture will focus on new business, not existing operations.
CMI brings North American contacts and expertise in lost-core manifolds, a process that involves molding a thermoplastic composite over a tin-bismuth metal and then melting down the metal to produce a hollow core.
Welded manifolds are considered less costly, especially in tooling, than their lost-core brethren. However, they cannot be shaped into as flexible a design as lost-core manifolds, said Jeffrey Geist, CMI vice president for General Motors and Asia Pacific sales. Generally, the welded manifolds are used for smaller, less-complex engines and underhood systems.
With the Auttocom addition, CMI claims to be the largest maker of lost-core manifolds in North America. It would like to build on that growth with welded manifolds, Geist said.
``We're using Mecaplast's technology to leapfrog our competitors and be on the cutting edge with welded manifolds,'' Geist said.
The companies eventually expect to expand the joint venture to South America and Asia, Geist said. Currently, the partners are evaluating the market for potential sites, he said.
The joint company is one of several large U.S. producers of plastics composite manifolds, including Solvay Automotive Inc. of Troy, Mich., Montaplast of North America Inc. in Frankfort, Ky., and Siemens Automotive LP in Auburn Hills, Mich.
The industry is making a large shift toward plastic manifolds, said David Geran, Siemens director of business development. While no North American vehicles currently are in production with welded manifolds, Geran said he expects several carmakers to come out with the welded components around 2000.
``Lost core will still be state-of-the-art, especially for the larger engines that we Americans like,'' Geran said from Sieman's Windsor, Ontario, plant. ``In general, everyone is moving in the direction of plastic manifolds. The changeover from aluminum to plastic is occurring rapidly.''