MISSISSAUGA, ONTARIO — Automakers anxious to focus on their core car production have trimmed more than employee numbers or parts units. They've stripped themselves of materials experts.
For plastics processors anxious to become a bigger link in the automotive supply chain, that means they no longer may have supporters in design and manufacturing centers.
Any company looking to move ahead had better be prepared to educate its customers in addition to seeking out sales, Alan Power, president and chief executive officer of Decoma International Inc., said May 2 during a keynote address at Plast-Ex 2001 in Mississauga.
"We need customer champions," he said.
"[Automakers] don't want to try new things very often, and we have a real lack of people in there who really understand plastics."
Exterior specialist Decoma of Concord, Ontario, is counting on future growth in automotive by replacing existing metal panels and parts. That means fighting a material status quo, a battle suppliers must be prepared to fund and research on their own.
"If you don't do it, you're eventually going to be out of business," Power said.
Automakers are looking to suppliers to bring them innovations — better materials, processes and programs, he said. Companies willing to invest in research to bring the latest technology to the table will survive because they can charge more for a unique system.
But those new programs have to be ready whenever an opportunity pops up. Automakers pushing to speed up the design process already have dropped the preparation period from five years to about two years.
There is no time to launch a full study after a new vehicle program already is in the pipeline.
"You have to have something on a bookshelf, ready to go," Power said. "You have to be able to prove your program is going to work right from the start."
Market pressures to produce lighter cars and a greater variety of styling options are leaving the door open for more plastics content on vehicles, he noted.
Even if federal regulators do not demand better fuel economy, consumers faced with soaring gasoline prices will. That translates to lighter cars and a greater potential for plastic to replace heavier steel components.
At the same time, consumers are looking for a greater range of style options within existing vehicles. Carmakers have responded by producing a mixture of cars from the same base frame.
Ford Motor Co., for example, used to make 900,000 F-150 pickup trucks in just three body styles, Power noted. Now there are more than 20 body options. To provide that range of styles, the company is more likely to turn to plastics, since it is cheaper to produce a composite panel than a steel one for low-volume production.
But if molders and resin suppliers do not invest now and prepare products for future vehicle launches, they could miss out, Power said. That will give metal the inside track.
"If another material is chosen, we lose the opportunity to replace them, and we're going to be on the outside," he said. "The companies that continually innovate survive."