NORTHWOOD, OHIO - The last piece of the puzzle is in place: Johnson Controls Inc. says it now can supply complete car interiors.
With its launch of a cockpit module assembly operation this year to supply DaimlerChrysler AG's Jeep Liberty, the company said it can produce and deliver every piece of a passenger compartment.
``This is a critical development to be an interior integrator,'' said Robert Jensen, vice president and general manager of product and development for cockpit and door systems.
Jensen spoke during a tour of the new assembly plant in Northwood, less than 10 miles from DaimlerChrysler's Liberty production facility in Toledo, Ohio.
Johnson Controls already makes door-panel modules, overhead modules and seating systems.
``The cockpit was the piece that was missing. This fills that gap.''
JCI, like its top competitors, wants to do more than just produce pre-assembled parts for automakers. It wants to oversee the design, look and feel of vehicle interiors - coordinating the work of dozens of processors.
``More and more, [automakers] are asking us for a recommendation, rather than asking to see the menu of what's available,'' Jensen said.
JCI is aiming for the day when an automaker will turn to the supplier and ask it to engineer and oversee a total interior package for a full production run. That day, Jensen said, may be only a few years away. Carmakers already have turned to outside companies for some specialized, limited-production vehicles.
The company now has an agreement with General Motors Corp. to help coordinate interiors of its minivans. For now, that means managing parts flow from a variety of suppliers, said spokesman Bill Dawson. But for future model years, that could provide JCI with more input into overall design.
``It's early in the process,'' he said. ``It's an evolution. We don't know exactly where it's going to take us in the future.''
Within three or four years, Jensen said, a carmaker could turn to a company like Johnson Controls, provide it with guidelines in terms of the price of the total interior package and the intended customers, and then ask it to come up with recommendations.
Johnson Controls needed to prove its competency in providing complete cockpits, which are among the most complex parts of a vehicle interior.
``They have sort of crossed a hurdle or a barrier in saying that they can deliver anything in the interior,'' said Greg Janicki, vice president of automotive consultants CSM Worldwide of Northville, Mich.
Janicki is not ready to estimate exactly when automakers will outsource complete interior packages, but that day is coming. Definitions of that package will vary, also, as the industry works out the details.
JCI does not want to make the entire system, said Ron Hemmeke, manager of business development and product planning - instrument panels and floor consoles. Instead, it will seek strong partners who will focus on their specialties and leave the coordination up to Johnson Controls.
As it moves forward, JCI expects to look for companies to provide heating and air conditioning packages, electrical wiring, safety systems and driver controls, such as the steering column and pedals.
The Liberty cockpit is based around a polycarbonate and ABS instrument panel molded by Intertec Systems - a joint venture of JCI and Inoac Corp. of Nagoya, Japan - and delivered to Toledo complete with a soft-touch painted surface.
Intertec was able to decrease the amount of steel in the panel, instead molding structural capabilities into the thermoplastic substrate.
In all, more than 35 different companies supply some element of the cockpit. TRW Inc., for example, produces the air bags. Toledo Machine and Tool Co. makes the steering column.
``We will put as much on the module as possible before it goes in the door,'' Hemmeke said.
And the company must put those components in place quickly and to its customer's specific order. In theory, the Liberty could have thousands of different iterations, including right- and left-hand drive systems, multiple colors, trim packages and different sound systems. The company has 204 minutes to deliver a completed module to the line at the Liberty production facility.
The capability to do that, Jensen said, is the dividing line between making components and specializing in total systems.
``It's not just pieces and parts,'' he said. ``It's taking responsibility.''