Textron Automotive Co. Inc. has teamed with two other suppliers in a farsighted vision to make complete plastic instrument-panel modules from a base of six Italian injection molding plants.
The new company, called Textron Breed Automotive srl, includes parts suppliers Breed Technologies Inc. of Lakeland, Fla., and Magneti Marelli SpA of Milan, Italy. The venture joins Textron, considered the largest North American supplier of instrument panels, with two of the world's leading producers of occupant-safety systems and auto electronic components.
``The U.S. automotive industry is redefining itself,'' said Johnnie Cordell Breed, chairman and chief executive officer of Breed. ``What you're going to see in the future are a lot more suppliers aligning themselves with others to compete. We can go boldly into new areas with this venture.''
Initially, the venture will serve Italian automaker Fiat SpA and others from the six plants, which Breed owned. The facilities will make instrument panels, front and rear bumper panels, and interior and exterior trim parts.
The firms eventually plan to make cockpit modules for Fiat. The modules could integrate electrical wiring, on-board electronics, air ducts, the steering column, air bags and other features.
Completely loaded cockpits have yet to reach commercial production. The venture will be used as a stepping stone to enter that market, said Sam Licavoli, Textron chairman, president and chief executive officer.
``The sky's the limit on how innovative we can be,'' he said. ``When the power of synergy takes over with three companies, we can bring instrument-panel technology to a new level.''
The market clearly is moving to modular instrument panels, Licavoli said. He estimates, based on market interest, that as many as half the vehicles worldwide could have cockpit modules by 2010.
Most major interior systems suppliers are moving in similar directions. A raft of cockpit applications could come in the next five years, sources said.
According to sources, Delphi Interior Systems of Warren, Mich., could be the farthest along. But others, including Visteon Automotive Systems, Lear Corp. and Johnson Controls Inc., might not be far behind.
And in Europe, suppliers Siemens Automotive and Sommer Allibert SA have a joint venture to make cockpit modules, as do Cie. Plastic Omnium SA and Valeo SA.
``Cockpit modules are definitely in,'' said JCI spokesman David Roznowski. ``We're looking at how to integrate all components. We've done a couple of concept cockpits, and we're talking to customers about developing cockpits three or four years out.''
In North America, Textron has two new contracts with an unspecified carmaker to develop cockpit modules, Licavoli said. Those modules are to come out within three years, he added.
A major driver of cockpit modules is the effort to cut costs by consolidating parts. Other potential benefits include weight savings, surface appearance and interior fit and finish, Licavoli said.
Still, cockpit technology must be proven before it is accepted universally, said Greg Janicki, vice president of automotive-forecasting firm CSM Worldwide in Farmington Hills, Mich.
``It's just now starting to come to production with any kind of significant integration,'' he said.
Textron Automotive, based in Troy, Mich., owns 60 percent of the Nichelino, Italy-based joint venture, while Breed holds 30 percent. Magneti Marelli has the remaining 10 percent.
Marelli holds another major piece of the operation. The firm has a contract with Fiat to supply fully integrated cockpit modules for a new, midsize-car program due out in 2001. Textron Breed has bought a 20 percent interest in the program, Licavoli said.
Textron Breed bought the molding business of Gallino Plasturgia srl, a Breed subsidiary in Nichelino, as part of the venture. The subsidiary recorded $150 million in sales last year.
Breed still will operate an Italian steering-wheel business under the Gallino name, it said.
The six molding plants, scattered throughout the country, include 91 injection presses with clamping forces of 350-4,000 tons, said Textron Automotive spokesman Craig Miner. The venture will have about 1,000 employees.
The plants range in size from 47,000-320,000 square feet.
Textron will contribute instrument-panel technology to the group. Breed has contributed its Gallino plants and could provide steering columns and air bags for cockpits. And Marelli makes heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems and clusters of electrical components.
Textron Automotive's trim systems division had no presence in Italy before the joint venture, Licavoli said. The venture gives the publicly traded firm distribution channels in southern Europe, said analyst Peter Arment of JSA Research Inc. in Newport, R.I.
``They'll get a large bang for their buck with this,'' Arment said. ``Their partners obviously know that region well. It will be easier for Textron to crack that market by forming a joint venture.''
Textron Automotive ranked first in North American injection molding sales for 1998 with $1.4 billion in sales, according to Plastics News' recent survey. Worldwide, it recorded more than $2 billion in sales.
Breed recorded about $1.4 billion in 1998 sales, and Magneti Marelli had about $4 billion.