At least one Saturn Corp. department plans to branch out as a free-standing independent supplier of molded plastic automotive parts.
``We'd really like to be a supplier outside of Saturn,'' said Mike Herron, area module adviser for Saturn's Vehicle Interior Systems operation in Spring Hill, Tenn. ``We're discussing business deals with other companies right now.''
Herron's 250,000-square-foot section of the auto plant is responsible for turning out the molded plastic interior parts for 300,000 Saturns a year. Despite three car production cutbacks in the past year, Saturn is allowing the area to expand. The operation is getting 20,000 additional square feet of floor space, plus two loading docks that can be used to ship products to other companies.
``We can bid well beyond these borders,'' Herron said in an interview with Automotive News, a sister publication to Plastics News. ``Our goal is to be a supplier not only to Saturn, but to other GM and non-GM business.''
The plant has been turning out instrument panels, consoles, door trim, air ducts and other parts.
The new strategy emerged last year when Saturn experienced its first production slowdown. Because the automaker has a no-layoff policy, employees in the plastics operation found themselves with free time to pursue long-range goals.
They used the downtime to apply for QS 9000 certification, independently from the rest of the Saturn factory. QS 9000 is a set of quality-control standards that suppliers must reach to do business with the Big Three. Suppliers worldwide have scrambled to meet the requirements, a process that takes months.
In January, the plastics plant became the only operation within Saturn to become certified. That now opens the door to sell molded plastic parts to other firms.
``Injection molding isn't viewed as a core business for automakers these days,'' Herron said. ``The assumption is that you can't be competitive in this business if you have to pay [United Auto Workers] wages. We've proven here that we can competitively bid for work.''
Four years ago, Saturn itself considered outsourcing the plastics business. According to Herron, the firm was unimpressed with the operation's efficiency and quality performance.
But plant workers faced up to the problem, the manager says. Engineers made process innovations that cut costs, reduced the work force by 48 people and eliminated production steps, freeing up about 40,000 square feet of floor space.
That enabled the department to bid for the business of producing exterior plastic panels for the Saturn Innovate, the company's new midsized sedan. The plastic panels for Saturn's current models are produced by another operation at Spring Hill. That operation also is expanding.
Herron declined to say what companies the interior systems unit is now pitching for business.
``We can produce parts for anybody,'' he said. ``We're a Saturn supplier. But we're a stand-alone operation. It's no different than if we were ABC Plastics located a mile down the road from Saturn.''