French molder Sommer Allibert SA is solidifying its automotive operations in North America with a series of recent moves.
The company's SAI Automotive AG arm — encompassing the non-French automotive business for the Nanterre, France, company — plans a $25 million expansion of its molding plant in Fountain Inn, S.C., this year to support new automotive contracts.
SAI, based in Frankfurt, Germany, also recently shuttled its plastic-bumper injection molding operation across the border from Kansas City, Mo., to Kansas City, Kan. The move helps center SAI's bumper molding and painting operation in one location.
And the company's Puebla, Mexico, plant — which started construction two years ago — is up and running at full capacity with new business.
Sommer Allibert, which has more than 30 plants in Europe, gradually has wended its way into the boardrooms of Big Three automakers and European suppliers setting up shop in North America.
Sommer Allibert recorded $3.05 billion in 1997 sales, most of that in Europe.
``We're working on an expansion program in North America,'' said Jean-Michel Vallin, chief operating officer for SAI's North American operations. ``It will start as we expand our engineering and design expertise on interiors, door modules and full [instrument panel] cockpits.''
Vallin spoke in a telephone interview from his office in Farmington Hills, Mich.
The firm already is embarking on a major equipment expansion at its South Carolina plant, which molds plastic interior parts for BMW AG's sport utility vehicle built in nearby Spartanburg, S.C.
SAI recently picked up new business to make door panel substrates for a new Saturn midsize car, called the Innovate, which will be assembled in Wilmington, Del. SAI will begin making interior panels for BMW's 3- and 5-series cars from the facility next year.
To manage that business, the company has invested in new injection presses, paint lines and vacuum forming equipment, Vallin said. While he could not estimate the amount of equipment purchased, Vallin said the plant will have as many as seven presses and two paint lines once the expansion is completed at the end of the year.
The company has added 20,000 square feet to the plant, giving it a total of 160,000 square feet.
In Kansas City, it was more a case of consolidation. SAI closed its 194,000-square-foot, 4-year-old injection molding plant in Kansas City, Mo., in August and moved its plastic bumper-fascia operations across the border to Kansas.
The plant's three injection presses, with clamping forces of 2,500-2,700 tons, were shifted to the plant in Kansas City, Kan., where the company had an existing facility for painting bumper fascias. SAI makes the fascias for General Motors Co.'s Oldsmobile Intrigue and Pontiac Grand Prix.
SAI bought the paint plant from DuPont in 1996, after GM asked for more sophisticated, two-tone paint on its fascias.
``To improve our productivity, we decided to consolidate both painting and molding in one plant,'' Vallin said. ``We moved the equipment during the GM strike, when we had the time. It was about the only positive thing about the strike for us.''
The Kansas plant now is making about 2,200 bumper fascias daily, primarily from thermoplastic olefins, he said.
The firm also recently ramped up to full production at its Mexico plant. SAI invested more than $40 million in the facility to make instrument panels, door panels and center consoles for the new Volkswagen AG Beetle.
The 250,000-square-foot plant has started production on interior parts for VW's Jetta. About 900 people work at that plant, which includes an unspecified number of injection presses.
SAI also plans to double the size of its engineering and sales staff in a Detroit suburb to 60 people next year, to develop more U.S. automotive business.
``We have a lot of plans,'' he said. ``You should hear a lot from us.''