WARREN, MICH. — Becker Group LLC can measure the ties to one of its biggest customers in just feet. As in 265,000 square feet — the size of Johnson Controls Inc.'s new door-trim facility in Warren, which marked its grand opening June 1.
And in 70,000 square feet — the amount of space inside the plant that Becker is renting from JCI to injection mold polypropylene substrates.
And in the less than 20 feet that separates Becker's presses from Johnson Control's final trim line for DaimlerChrysler AG's Jeep doors.
The two companies' operations are connected by a conveyor belt that takes the substrate directly from Becker to the hands of JCI workers.
"This eliminates all the travel time, all the handling and all the storage," said John Dron, second-shift manager. "It's fantastic."
It also is a test of just how well a Tier 1 automotive supplier can work with its subsuppliers, said Rande Somma, president of JCI's North America automotive systems group.
"We're doing a lot of things to rationalize our supply base, to right-size our supply base," he said. "What drives it all is the [original equipment manufacturers] telling us we need to cut costs.
"It's getting more and more difficult to do that with conventional methods. You've got to change the way you do things."
Becker, based in Sterling Heights, Mich., and JCI already had a close history. Becker Group Inc. sold its holdings to Johnson Controls in 1998. In January 1999, key management within Becker formed Becker Group LLC and bought back eight molding facilities and two tooling shops and began molding parts for JCI contracts.
JCI, based in Glendale, Wis., brought in Becker management to help plan the $35 million Warren plant.
"This was really a combined effort from ground zero with this plant," said Becker President Mike McInerney.
"It represents an industry first. It represents a model for supply- chain management in the future," he added.
Becker Group since has announced plans to shut down one of the eight facilities — a 300-employee operation in Sterling Heights — that made interior trim for minivans.
McInerney was not available to comment on whether that closure was related to the opening of the new Warren operation.
Becker operates on one side of the Warren shop floor. Eventually 75 employees and 12 presses will produce substrates for JCI, stacking them for immediate access by JCI employees.
The Jeep line, connected by a conveyor belt, can go from resin to final trim in 12 minutes, Dron said.
Working side-by-side with Becker, JCI can guarantee delivery of any panel within four hours. The combination should improve quality, costs and handling, he said.
The effort already has the attention of automakers.
"We've been pushing our suppliers to improve the management of their own [supply] tiers," said Rick Brown, DaimlerChrysler purchasing director. "JCI took that to the next level."
DaimlerChrysler is the plant's sole customer for now; the facility makes door trim for a variety of Jeep, Chrysler and Dodge vehicles.
If the strategy works, JCI could opt to move more of its suppliers under its own roof in the future, Somma said.
"Is this the wave of the future? Sure. It could well be," he said. "We're hoping it is."