Durakon Industries Inc. built its business on thermoformed pickup-truck bedliners.
Its future, though, has a wider reach, with new business as a direct supplier to automakers and a new range of products including running boards, decorative exterior trim and cargo covers.
``We have major opportunities coming up with the products we can make,'' said Ed Gniewek, president and chief operating officer, during an Oct. 28 interview at the company's Lapeer headquarters.
The company's specialty in thermoforming is coming into play as automakers and their suppliers take increased interest in the technology.
``The auto industry has been using thermoforming for things like door skins and dashboard panels for 30 or 40 years, but they're waking up to a lot of other potential with it,'' said consultant Bill McConnell of Fort Worth, Texas-based McConnell Co.
The technology is being used in an increasing number of trim components for the ability to use film replacements for paint. Lower tooling costs for thermoforming compared with injection molding is helping to drive consideration of the process, McConnell noted.
It is used on a DaimlerChrysler AG bumper system that can skip the paint shop. French automaker Renault SA uses thermoforming for a bumper on a car made in South America.
Durakon made its breakthrough in 2000 when General Motors Corp. launched the Avalanche sport utility truck with three interlocking cargo covers that can completely cover the composite truck bed.
The automaker teamed with Durakon to thermoform high density polyethylene over a honeycomb aluminum center core - marking the company's new status as a Tier 1 supplier to the auto industry and requiring a $25 million investment for a plant and equipment in Lerma, Mexico.
The company has dealt with the automaker previously in bedliners, but those were handled as an after-market sales item, coordinated through dealers.
``[GM] took a chance,'' Gniewek said. ``We were not an [original equipment manufacturer] supplier. This was a defining moment for us.''
Durakon is upgrading its operations in Clinton, Tenn., to handle new business, has lines in Mexico for both the cargo covers and bedliners and has invested in new robotics systems for its bedliner production facility in Lapeer.
The firm admits it still is perfecting the high-gloss paint replacement finish North American automakers prefer, but it already has launched production of running boards and stone guards for GM's new SSR roadster pickup truck using a paint film replacement.
Investment group Littlejohn & Co. LLC, which purchased the then-publicly traded Durakon in 1999, has provided fiscal support for the switch from bedliners to a wider product portfolio, Gniewek said. The liners now make up about 30 percent of Durakon's annual sales. The company does not disclose its total sales, but industry estimates placed its annual income at about $180 million - double its value when Littlejohn took over.
``The doors are opening for thermoformed parts in automotive,'' Gniewek said. ``We are flooded with the possibilities for these technologies.''
Improvements in processing techniques and increasing cost concerns are driving the interest. With single-sided tools and thermoforming's use of aluminum rather than steel, automakers can see opportunities to make big parts for less money, McConnell said.
Durakon has found ways to encapsulate structural components and insert foam for additional strength in parts. Decorative film systems skip the cost and environmental headaches of traditional paint shops.
``We're becoming more competitive with injection molding,'' said Leonard Damico, vice president of OEM sales. ``Thermoformers today are in the same place the injection molders were 20 years ago.''
Gniewek maintains, though, that it will not be easy for everyone to jump into the field. The firm operates its own extrusion lines to maintain precise control over the resin blend going into each sheet, which in turn impacts everything from shrink rates to the surface finish.
``The extrusion lines are our most important step,'' he said. ``It's the basis of our product. The materials and the way you process it will make a world of difference.''
While Durakon is seeing increased opportunities to bid on components in the auto industry, it also is looking to market its capabilities in recreational vehicles and on boats. Its traditional aftermarket sales base also gives the firm opportunities to test out new products carmakers may be a little shy to try out themselves, Gniewek said.
``Our history of quotes is just exploding,'' he said. ``We're hearing about a number of new things. It's an exciting time to be in the business.''