WESTLAND, MICH. — Judging by its uneasy history, Textron Automotive Co. Inc.'s Westland molding plant should be a vacant lot. Instead, Westland has risen from the ashes — literally, after a five-alarm fire destroyed an on-site warehouse in 1997 — and Textron is investing $16 million in the facility.
The turnaround is all the more remarkable considering the plant's checkered past. After staring at the brink of shutdown, Westland now is one of Textron's most efficient molding facilities, a model for headliner production and the beneficiary of new interior-parts business starting next year.
Little more than a year ago, the Troy, Mich.-based automotive supplier was on the verge of closing the plant and exiting the headliner business.
"We had made a lot of improvements in efficiency, reducing scrap and utilizing manpower," said Jerry Mosingo, executive vice president of manufacturing operations for Textron Automotive Trim. "But it might not have been enough at the time. Our customers were still really nervous."
The facility had been close to shutdown before. It previously had been owned by Van Dresser Corp., a molder of headliners and other parts.
But in the early 1990s, Van Dresser encountered financial trouble and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection, a move that usually leads to liquidation.
Textron rescued Van Dresser in February 1992 by buying its assets, and the Westland plant remained open.
Headliners, the interior roof of a vehicle, were a new product for Textron. Westland uses a proprietary compression molding technology called the Tramivex process. Licensed from a French developer, Tramivex allows Textron to mold a complete, seven-layer headliner system from glass-filled thermoset urethane, including the energy-absorbing foam core and space for wiring harnesses and other features.
But even with Tramivex as a selling point, the 216,000-square-foot plant struggled, said Steven Souders, Textron vice president of Westland operations. The factory floor was laid out poorly, so that parts and resin had to be moved a long distance before reaching finished goods.
Defects and inventory levels were too high, Souders said.
"We wanted to develop a lean-manufacturing environment," he said. "The goal was to create a better one-piece flow of materials and parts. It was a work in progress when the fire hit."
On Aug. 13, 1997, a late-night fire destroyed the interior of a 100,000-square-foot warehouse, causing $7 million in damage.
The cause of the fire, which blazed for more than three hours, still is unknown.
"It was more smoke and water damage than anything," Souders said. "But we had to put everything back together. In some ways, that gave us a better chance to rebuild the operation."
Officials had determined where bottlenecks existed and worked to unblock them. Special water-jet cutting cells were added, an investment of about $12 million, to slice the large parts more easily before assembly.
The changes brought down costs considerably, Mosingo said. But customers, including all U.S.-based automakers, were still a bit concerned about the operation's future, especially after the fire, he said. Contracts were expiring and in danger of being outsourced.
The plant's more than 300 workers were in danger of losing their jobs.
Still, the company persisted. Manufacturing cells were set up to improve work flow and reduce the need for inventory buildup. The delivery system was improved.
That persistence, along with the advantages of the Tramivex process, eventually changed customers' minds, Mosingo said. Several contracts, including one to make headliners for General Motors Corp.'s Pontiac Grand Prix, stayed at the plant.
The facility brought in new operations, including the sequencing of bumper fascias. Those fascias are organized by color and model before shipment to carmakers' assembly plants.
In late 1998, the company received a major boost. Textron was awarded a major contract to make entire interior systems, except seats, on a new minivan platform by a U.S.-based carmaker. The models are due out in July 2000 and could lead to production of more than 600,000 vehicles annually.
Textron, needing to add capacity, looked to Westland for space, Mosingo said.
"It gave the plant a chance to start from scratch and extend what we were doing with lean manufacturing," he said.
The supplier leased a 136,000-square-foot building next to the Westland plant and tore down the dividing wall. The new portion of the facility will mold interior parts on the minivan.
The company is investing $16 million in the new site, Mosingo said. Sixteen Van Dorn injection presses, with clamping forces of 400-3,000 tons, will be running by April, Souders said.
ExxonMobil Chemical Co. will provide high-crystalline polypropylene for the molded-in-color parts, Souders said.
ExxonMobil and Van Dorn Demag Corp. provided more than 50 hours of training on the equipment, he said.
Workers, schooled in urethane molding, had to learn a new process, Souders said. On top of that, the automated presses include three new Caliber two-platen machines from Van Dorn.
"Textron spent a lot of time becoming familiar with two-platen technology," said Van Dorn marketing communication manager Patrice Aylward.
Meanwhile, the company is nearing full production again on its urethane headliners. Textron operates seven specially built compression molding lines.
The plant makes 5,000-6,000 headliners a day, according to Souders.
The company is the largest injection molder in North America, according to Plastics News rankings, with about $1.4 billion in relevant sales last year.
Including Westland, the company now has 16 interior-trim plants in North America, Mosingo said.
"From almost closing, we've now made the plant part of our expansion in the interiors business," he said.