At GE Plastics' automotive center, workers are noisily tearing down building wings and tooling up to create a higher-profile engineering juggernaut.
Executives there say the game is changing in the automotive industry, that they must be prepared for the rushing tide.
In the future, automakers will expect resin suppliers to light an incendiary match that will help them find the materials for the next wave of vehicles, those that can offer consumers sharp styling at low cost.
Now more than ever, their services are being enlisted. So GE Plastics, among others in the Detroit area, is calling out the heavy engineering artillery.
GE Plastics is creating a new technology center at its Southfield, Mich., automotive hub. The urban-renewal project will include a virtual laboratory to envision different materials on car models and instant access for engineers at GE Plastics' Pittsfield, Mass., headquarters via video conferencing equipment and 9-foot screens.
The supplier also is gutting a former information systems area to create a tear-down garage where engineers can dissect car parts from a complete vehicle and analyze a component's material makeup on new computer-aided-engineering stations.
As scientific as that work has become, maybe GE Plastics should apply for a federal research grant to analyze the DNA of a radiator grille.
The company is celebrating the need for such a powerful engineering studio. That means automakers are asking for GE Plastics' two cents, are seeking its help upfront to create vehicles of the future.
The new rules of the game are quite simple: Build the center and they will come.
Yet, there is a certain edginess to the whole endeavor. Certainly, GE Plastics would like the expanded center to help it sell more resin or, at the very least, convince automakers to listen to its ideas on material usage in car design.
But, when pressed, Thomas Bouchard, general manager of GE Plastics' automotive operation, offered another explanation. Large parts suppliers are struggling to get costs down while coming up with new products that add more value.
Meanwhile, automakers demand cost reductions to keep a lid on
car prices. So they are turning to resin suppliers for help. The suppliers must respond.
By the same token, the industry is asking for support from toolmakers, from smaller parts makers, from equipment manufacturers. Even the American Plastics Council has invested in a new Troy, Mich., automotive center that includes a vast library of material solutions.
The pressure has shifted from the automakers to their suppliers. The plastics industry either can put up or shut up. It is a vicious game, but to the winners go the spoils.
Pryweller is a Detroit-based staff reporter for Plastics News.