TRAVERSE CITY, MICH. — Plastics could spell the future for Ford Motor Co.'s parts-making division.
Last week, an executive with Ford's Automotive Products Operations strongly suggested what many in the industry had whispered for months: that the group would shift to a higher gear by providing major systems components to carmakers outside the Ford circle.
That step could mean more use of plastic resins as the Dearborn, Mich., carmaker expands its spectrum of plants, processes and materials to create entire vehicle systems. At the same time, the carmaker's expansion also would mean greater head-to-head competition with outside suppliers.
Those possibilities were tossed out by Charles Szuluk, group vice president for Ford APO, at the University of Michigan Management Briefing Seminars, held Aug. 4-8 in Traverse City.
``The demand for systems from our customers keeps growing larger,'' Szuluk said during an Aug. 4 speech. ``An entire system is the best product we can provide and costs less to make. And existing materials, such as plastics, must be significantly used if we're to create systems that work well.''
Szuluk did not go so far as to explain which areas of the vehicle — interior, exterior or underhood — would be the keys to Ford's new systems approach. He said to expect a major announcement in September. The carmaker may detail its plans at the Frankfurt, Germany, auto show next month.
However, some advance word has leaked out. Sources both inside Ford and among outside suppliers said that the No. 2 carmaker already has begun making blow molded plastic bumper beams for an outside customer. The beams from Ford's Milan, Mich., plant, are used by Mercedes Benz AG at its Vance, Ala., plant, sources said.
The blow molding work is done with existing machines that once were used to make monolayer plastic fuel tanks. Ford installed new coextrusion machines in Milan earlier this year when it began making multilayer fuel tanks.
Sources said APO also would make entire interior cockpit systems, which include seats, instrument panels and trim, at either its Saline or Utica, Mich., plants.
Ford officials have not confirmed either report.
If Ford does begin making entire interior systems, the firm might bring in-house some work now being done by outside suppliers. That could include instrument panels made for the Taurus and Sable at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant in Logan, Ohio.
Goodyear announced in March that it had signed a letter of agreement to sell that plant to Southfield, Mich.-based Lear Corp. However, that deal has not been consummated. An industry source said Lear is waiting for Ford's upcoming announcement before committing to buying the plant.
David Wilkins, a spokesman for Akron, Ohio-based Goodyear, said two weeks ago that the Lear sale was alive and that the parties were going through due diligence. Lear has not commented on the potential deal.
The move into systems also would force the issue of competition among some of Ford's main suppliers. A source at one of those suppliers, who did not want to be identified, said APO's recent moves have left him in a vulnerable position.
``Our relationship is a bit unusual right now with Ford,'' he said. ``At the moment, we don't know if [Ford APO] is going to be a direct competitor instead of a customer. The signs sure point in that direction,''
Since forming APO in November, the carmaker has said the umbrella group's goal would be to serve customers outside its parent company, similar to what General Motors Corp.'s Delphi Automotive now does. APO, which blends divisions in glass chassis, fuel-handling and other auto components, now takes about 5-6 percent of its business from outside Ford.
Szuluk said he would like to increase that percentage to 20 percent or more. APO, the second-largest supplier in the world, recorded 1996 sales of $16.4 billion.
For the past nine months, Ford has evaluated the group, which has 68 plants in 19 countries. Speculation has swirled that the firm also would sell off some of its noncore businesses, including its glass division.
The evaluation process has included a review of APO's marketing, product and organizational strategies, Szuluk said. APO also has considered ways to cut down its product development cycle time to as little as 10 months for certain parts; it used to take the company as long as three years to develop a product from concept to production, he said.
In his speech, Szuluk alluded to advantages of producing interior systems. On an instrument panel, for example, a supplier can realize significant savings in material and labor costs by making the cluster bezel and panel at the same plant, he said.
``The smart supplier, the one who wants to be a leader, will figure out how to deliver that cluster with only one housing, using the instrument panel as the cover,'' he said. ``In the end, the winner is going to be the supplier who can pull it all together for the customer.''
In September, the world will see how Ford APO pulls all its pieces together.