Banking on a plastics technology popular in Europe, a Michigan injection molder and the owner of a German automotive parts supplier will jointly open new plants in Detroit and Brazil.
The two will team to make polyurethane gearshift knobs using a reinforced reaction injection molding process. In North America, most of those knobs are injection molded from nylon, polypropylene and other engineered thermoplastics.
The company principals will be William Pickard, chairman of Regal Plastics Inc., a minority-owned molder based in Roseville, Mich., and Carl-Heinz Roth, chairman of gear-knob producer Haas GmbH in Nuremburg, Germany.
The new company, known as Delta-Haas LLC, plans to open a plant in March in Detroit's empowerment zone. The area of the city, once known for a sprinkling of automotive assembly plants, offers tax and training incentives for minority-owned suppliers moving there.
The small, 25,000-square-foot plant will have room to double its size, said John M. Mead, interim president of Delta-Haas. The facility also will make leather-wrapped gear shift knobs and leather and PVC boots and parking brake covers.
The facility will start with one RIM machining center, capable of automatically mixing the PU resin and spraying it onto an open mold.
The plant, which will employ about 40, also will include about 12 machines to cut and sew the leather and PVC.
While starting small, the company plans to carve a North American niche in PU gear shift knobs, Mead said. A second plant is planned in Sao Paulo, Brazil, by the end of 1999. The firm already has a contract with a major U.S. automaker, he said.
The firm currently is searching for a joint-venture partner in Brazil to help run the plant there.
``We have a lot on our plate,'' Mead said. ``We think there's a big market for [PU] knobs. It has good quality and a soft feel that is really popular in Europe.''
The competition, which includes Pickard's Regal Plastics, makes a lower-priced knob out of PP or nylon. Yet, PU has gained market share on other interior parts, such as instrument panel skins, due to its luxuriant, soft touch.
The new firm joins two well-known names in plastics gear-shift production. Pickard's company recorded $42 million in 1997 injection molding sales, according to Plastics News ranking of injection molders. Pickard has joint ownership in several other ventures, including a fuel-systems plant in Detroit's empowerment zone that he co-owns with Walbro Corp. of Cass City, Mich., and another partner.
Roth's business is larger than Pickard's, spanning as many as nine plants in Germany, Hungary and the Czech Republic and producing about 8,600 PU gear knobs a day, Mead said.
The company recorded more than $85 million in sales last year, he added.
Pickard will own 51 percent of the joint venture, and Roth will own the other 49 percent, Mead said.
Next year, Mead will step down as president to become sales and marketing vice president for Delta-Haas. Roth's son Joachim will take over as president of the joint venture, Mead said.