Cie. Plastic Omnium SA is making a play to become a major European producer of automotive bumper systems by building three new plants and expanding a fourth facility.
The plants, three in Europe and one in Mexico, will help the Paris-based supplier command as much as a quarter of the European bumper market by 1998. Plastic Omnium is investing 450 million francs ($74 million) in the three new facilities and several million more to expand a German plant.
Next on the horizon could be a move to open an exterior-parts plant in the United States. Currently, the exterior group's only U.S. operation is a joint venture in Anderson, S.C., with Becker Group Inc. of Sterling Heights, Mich. That $30 million plant opened in November and now is ramping up to full capacity.
``Currently, we're pursuing our targets in Europe, where we're already a well-known company in exterior parts,'' Jean Chassignet, Plastic Omnium's international sales director for Europe and North America, said from his Paris office. ``After that, the company will look at the U.S. market. Right now, I'd say we're pushing ourselves quite a lot.''
At the four plants, the growth push includes the addition of a combined 17 injection molding machines with clamping forces of 1,000-2,000 tons and two blow molding machines, to make monolayer plastic fuel systems. The plants primarily will make painted bumper fascias for European carmakers.
The company also has developed thermoplastic fender panels that it hopes to market to European and American carmakers. The panels, which primarily use a polypropylene material, are a lighter-weight alternative to metal and thermoset-based fenders, Chassignet said.
The company's growth was fueled by a corporate reorganization last year that split Plastic Omnium into three separate automotive divisions. Since then, its Exterior Automotive Components Division has charted a rapid path to supply plastic parts to European carmakers and General Motors Corp.'s European subsidiary, Adam Opel AG.
The plastic bumper plants, which together will add 690 to Plastic Omnium's employee rolls, began construction this spring. They include a site in Puebla, Mexico, scheduled to open in September, a facility in Herentals, Belgium, expected to open by the end of the year and a location in Measham, England, targeted for early 1998.
In addition, Plastic Omnium will expand its bumper plant in Grossenlupnitz, Germany, by about 20,000 square feet later this year. The plant, which provides bumpers for Opel and Volkswagen AG car lines, will add four new injection presses and a new paint line.
Following the lead of other suppliers, the company is opening a plant near Volkswagen's Puebla facility, which will begin making the new Beetle this fall. Plastic Omnium's 30,000-square-foot Puebla plant will produce front and rear bumper fascias and plastic fender systems for the redesigned car classic.
The FFr100 million ($16 million) plant, which will employ 140, includes six injection molding presses and a primer line.
While work gets ramped up at the plant, Plastic Omnium has made the bumper prototypes and production tools at its German facility.
In Belgium, Plastic Omnium recently received a contract from Opel to supply front and rear bumpers and plastic monolayer fuel systems for its Astra car line made in Antwerp, Belgium.
The FFr200 million ($33 million) Herentals plant will use three injection molding machines and a paint line to make the bumpers.
The 33,000-square-foot facility, which will have 250 employees, also includes two single-shuttle blow molding machines to manufacture fluorinated fuel tanks made from high density polyethylene.
As many as 300,000 Astra vehicles will be made by Opel each year in Belgium, according to Chassignet.
Finally, Plastic Omnium will mold bumper systems in England for British-based plants of Jaguar Cars Ltd. and Rover Group.
The FFr150 million ($25 million), 26,000-square-foot plant will employ 200 and use four injection molding presses and a paint line.
The company had no choice but to build new facilities, Chassignet said.
``Today, carmakers are looking to have their supplier not far from manufacturing operations, he said. ``We had to start from scratch in these countries or take the risk of losing the business.''
Currently, Plastic Omnium's exterior group operates 14 plants in seven European countries and North America.
The company, which recorded 1996 sales of FFr2.07 billion ($341 million), now reaps 59 percent of its sales from outside France.
That represents a major shift since 1989, when the parts supplier served only French carmakers and Volvo Car BV, Chassignet said.
In that year, the company received its first order from Opel, propelling its global expansion, he said.
Now, Plastic Omnium is considering new markets in the United States, South America and Asia as it continues to become a major global player.
The company, which recorded sales of FFr7.2 billion ($1.2 billion) last year, also manufactures plastic parts for the medical and pharmaceutical industries.
Spurring the company's growth also has been the 50-50 joint venture with Becker Group.
The companies opened a 109,000-square-foot facility in South Carolina to supply painted bumper fascias, exterior trim, body panels and fuel tanks to BMW AG's assembly plant in Spartanburg, S.C., and to General Motors.
The facility will provide parts for three programs: the BMW Z3 roadster, the Chevrolet Corvette and U-series minivan, said Phillipe Claye, a Plastic Omnium executive who heads up the joint venture.
The company has installed three Krupp Kautex blow molding machines to make six-layer fuel tanks from HDPE and an inner layer of ethylene vinyl alcohol to prevent permeation.
Like the exterior group, Claye said that the plant's goal is to continue moving forward, including the possibility of a second plant or expanding the existing facility.
``Nothing is planned precisely today but our goal is to grow,'' said Claye in regard to the South Carolina facility. ``We're very pleased the way this plant is operating. For us and the company as a whole, business is doing great.''