The new midsized Saturn car, which will be assembled in Wilmington, Del., is going to use plastic body panels molded at Saturn Corp.'s factory in Spring Hill, Tenn., Saturn has confirmed.
Saturn also is spending $190 million to add a second robotic line for welding space frames. Plastic body panels are hung on the space frames.
Inside Saturn, company officials originally used the name Innovate for the new midsize model. The car now is being called the LS, for larger Saturn, according to Candy Best, Saturn spokeswoman.
General Motors Corp. and Saturn have been closed-mouthed about details on the new car. However, published reports have said production could begin in 1998 or 1999, with 200,000-plus LS cars sold a year.
Saturn's Spring Hill factory is the subject of warm-and-fuzzy advertisements. Saturn even held a reunion where Saturn owners drove their cars back to their place of birth in Tennessee.
But when it became known that the GM Delaware factory — and not Spring Hill — would assemble the new, bigger car, industry observers and Saturn customers wondered how the company would market a car not made at Spring Hill.
Plastic-body-panel-loving Saturn owners should not worry.
``The LS will incorporate the marketing advantages that Saturn has, and one of those is the plastic panels,'' Best said.
Saturn was the first production car to feature complete thermoplastic exterior components. Spring Hill now has 35 injection molding machines — giant presses from Ube Machinery Inc. Nearly all of them come in two clamping-force sizes, 3,150 tons and 5,000 tons; two years ago the company bought a 7,000-ton Ube.
Saturn recently purchased two 5,000-ton injection molding machines from HPM Corp. The sale, which HPM boasted about at the NPE 1997 show with a sign in its booth, marked the first non-Ube press for the Spring Hill plant.
Known for its nonconfrontational sales approach and one-price policy, Saturn also made plastics history when production began in 1990. Spring Hill molds its own exterior body parts, such as thermoplastic doors, fenders and bumper fascias, in a body systems department. The vehicle interior systems department molds interior trim, including instrument panels.
Best confirmed that the new HPM presses will be placed in the VIS area of the factory. Having the additional machines will help the interior-parts operation do some molding of exterior body panels, such as bumper fascias and rocker panels, Best said.
``This will allow some flexibility in [the] body systems [department], to mold some exterior panels for the LS,'' Best said.
Saturn is building a 19,000-square-foot addition to accommodate the HPM presses, she said.
Best said she did not know if the body systems department planned to buy more plastics molding machines, or how much Saturn is spending on the plastics part of the expansion.
Adding the second space-frame welding line is part of an investment package GM's board of directors approved in November, Best said. Saturn is building a 350,000-square-foot expansion for that equipment.
A union source at Spring Hill said GM is spending $250 million to upgrade steel stamping operations in the body systems department. Improvements include equipment for quicker die changes for stamping, said the source, who spoke on the condition he would not be identified. Spokeswoman Best was unable to confirm that project.
Meanwhile, Ube executives are not happy about HPM's ability to crack their company's stronghold in Spring Hill. At NPE in June, Daniel O'Keefe, national sales manager of Ube in Ann Arbor, Mich., said Ube, HPM and Cincinnati Milacron Inc. all bid to supply the two 5,000-ton presses.
``It came down to price. We were not willing to go below cost and they [HPM] were,'' O'Keefe said. Milacron officials declined comment.
Best declined to say how much Saturn paid for the machines.
Brian Bishop, general manager of HPM's injection molding division, said technology, not price, swung the deal to HPM. Saturn decision-makers liked the HPM machines' parabolic platen and the simplicity of its locking mechanism, Bishop said at NPE.
Earlier this year, Edgar Kill-gore, manager of site facilities and corporate communications, said the Spring Hill factory turns out 1,200 cars a day. Saturn employs about 8,000.