The new Delphi Connection Systems plant is tucked away neatly from the street, neighbor to a little-used private airport and vacant lots in an economically challenged corner of northeast Ohio.
The Vienna Township area, near Youngstown and Warren, Ohio, is not exactly teeming with manufacturing. The region, near the Pennsylvania border, has been scarred by the loss of steel-company jobs, which has drained families of hard-earned savings.
Yet, Troy, Mich.-based Delphi Corp. - the world's largest automotive parts supplier - has chosen this location, near flattened fields and country homes, as a catalyst for its future. The community is home to a new $58 million, 190,000-square-foot plant that injection molds electrical connectors for the connections systems unit of Warren-based Delphi Packard Electric Systems.
The plant, with its 124 all-electric presses and a sophisticated system for handling 80 different resin compounds, is a showcase for new technology.
At an official opening in late June, Ohio Gov. Robert Taft praised the addition of 180 jobs in a targeted economic zone that attracted government loans and grants for the site - and the promise of much more employment coming to the region in the future.
Taft, buttoned down in a business suit for the otherwise-informal occasion, called the connector plant a sign of a stronger economic heartbeat for the adjacent Youngstown and Warren areas.
Delphi Packard Electric, a dominant global supplier of electrical systems for vehicles, and its Delphi Connection Systems business line worked for several years to perfect the production system that has gone into the plant in Vienna (pronounced VY-ENNA). The final version has been the subject of long, sometimes-argumentative management discussions at Delphi, according to several sources.
And before the plant could be built, management needed its union workers to agree to a new contract, one that would assure them of jobs even as the Delphi plant moved to the peak of automation.
But now, with the heavy negotiating over, Delphi Packard can unveil its most-advanced facility to the public. Plant 47, as the Vienna Township site is called internally at Delphi, will provide the archetype for what the company would like to see emulated across its operations, at least as far as best practices and technology goes, Delphi Packard Electric President James Spencer said at the grand opening.
Vienna is phase two of a long-term Delphi plan to make its facilities leaner and more efficient. Phase one was in nearby Cortland, Ohio, a Delphi Connection facility that opened in 2001.
``Cortland was a great experiment for cost and benchmarking,'' Spencer said. ``In phase two, we [are boosting] the level of technology. We have significantly raised the level of throughput, the level of quality, the level of delivery. We are staying competitive in the global market.''
Machinery-related highlights at the Vienna facility include:
* An impressive collection of 124 all-electric injection presses, the largest such installation in North America for supplier Milacron Inc.
* A highly refined material-handling and conveyance system that can automatically dispatch as many as 32 different materials through the plant at the same time, an overlapping grid of pipes that stretches 16 miles.
* Eleven automated guided vehicles - called AGV's for short- that zip around the plant carrying parts from one station to another. The AGV's look like go-carts without a human driver. On the plant tour, visitors had to sidestep the vehicles as they glided and turned sharply on a magnetized track.
Delphi already claims to make the largest volume of interconnect systems for automotive applications in North America. But the Vienna plant will take that production to a new level.
Spencer said, during an interview at the June 9 opening, that he would like to take a similar plant approach at other Delphi facilities when equipment needs to be replaced or a new site must be built. ``If we can, we'd like to use what we put in practice here,'' he said.
That could lead to a big spike in the use of all-electric machines in North America. The company is now a major advocate for their use. And as a major automotive supplier, Delphi could influence others. Delphi Corp. recorded sales of $28.1 billion last year.
After heavy bidding from several other equipment suppliers, Milacron won the contract for the all-electric machines at the Vienna plant. Delphi installed the all-electric Milacron/Fanuc Roboshot presses, made with the help of Fanuc Ltd. of Oshino-Mura, Japan. The first press came on-line in October 2002, and all the machines were running by May 2004. Each of the presses is in the range of 55-165 tons of clamping force.
The small, quietly efficient machines produce a Promethean output: 1.4 billion connector housings, clips, clamps and related parts annually. Most of those precision-made small parts, about 55 percent of them, move immediately from plant to trucks for distribution. There is little room for defect; in fact, each machine is continually tested by an automated system.
Bob Strickley, vice president of North American sales for Cincinnati-based Milacron, said the machines are customized and entirely integrated with both material-handling systems and Delphi's internal information technology.
``This is what's going on in the future for the industrialization of North America,'' Strickley said. ``There are not too many facilities like this that I've seen in my career. It sends a strong message to the industry in general to see a firm in Ohio make this kind of investment in value-added manufacturing''
The use of all-electric presses was not an easy board-room decision for Delphi Packard. At first, the company wanted to copy the successful model of its Cortland plant, another model of efficiency that uses hydraulic presses from Van Dorn Demag and others, said Kenneth Ellsworth, North American molding manager for Delphi Packard Electric.
Recipe for resins
The Cortland plant also features a synchronized approach among machines, materials and parts. The facility molds more than a billion connector parts a year, all using nylon 6/6 resin.
But Vienna was a bit different. While nylon still is a staple material, about half the plant's output comes from polypropylene. Parts were made from a headache-inducing 23 resin families, using more than 80 distinct compounds. The Cortland plant only uses 13 compounds.
Delphi teamed with Baltimore-based Novatec Inc. to design a centrally controlled system to process each resin.
The plant is cordoned into two halves, one for nylon and one for PP. Each side has an arsenal of blenders and hoppers at its center, with dryers on the nylon side, said Novatec electrical engineering manager Frederick Eichhorn II.
Material is parceled to 60 molding machines through as many as nine lines of pipe. The closed-loop system works 24/7 like a computer-run air-traffic controller, directing material that moves constantly through the same series of pipes.
The system talks with the rest of the machinery through an Ethernet computer connection, Eichhorn said. Doing that allows the precise amount of material to flow: from central material-handling system to presses or to be reground and recycled for future use.
Eichhorn spent more than three weeks in Vienna every month for more than half a year to help install the system. It worked surprisingly well almost immediately, even though few others are as automated, he said.
The company had no choice but to automate, he said. Otherwise, with the number of resin families used, the plant would have needed to run 16 pipes to each machine, Eichhorn said.
``The big difference between this and [other systems] is the number of materials and how they move back and forth from regional areas to the presses,'' Eichhorn said. ``Every machine has controllers that are wired locally. I don't know of any plant that can rival this level of sophistication.''
In a side product-development room with four presses, material passes through scanners and is placed in what Delphi refers to as ``corn bins.'' The materials in the bar-coded bins are tested for cross-contamination and sent on their way, using downloaded resin ``recipes'' from each machine.
Everything in Vienna had to be well-connected for parts to run on time, said Kent Royer, Milacron's Roboshot national sales manager, who sat in on many of the initial discussions.
``We had numerous meetings to make sure everybody was on the same page,'' Royer said. ``Leadership from Delphi management was very strong and unwavering, and certain criteria had to be met. A lot of late-night oil had to be expended in the true spirit of working together with people we hadn't normally worked with.''
Then, there was the challenge of transferring from the creakily old to the unblemished new. Delphi wanted to transfer its work, as quickly as possible, out of a plant in downtown Warren that had made plastic parts since 1937, Ellsworth said. That facility was dark, humid and inefficient, with most machines more than 25 years old, he said.
``The old machines could no longer run accurately, and repeatability was a big problem,'' Ellsworth said. ``There was substantial damage to our tools. We could have rebuilt some the presses, but we would have had to do that with about 80 percent of them.''
Instead, Delphi made the decision to move out of the Warren location. That decision did not come cheap. Delphi would invest $58 million in building and equipment in Vienna, after investing $42 million to build the Cortland plant just three years ago. Even for Delphi, a $100 million investment in new plants is huge.
``We had to establish a competitive advantage in plastic injection molding,'' said John Setcik, Delphi Packard director of U.S. operations, at the grand opening. ``So we took a unique approach to a conventional system. We knew that we had to do it.''
The state and local government chipped in, giving Delphi a low-interest, $5 million state loan and grants totaling about $675,000. ``The industry needed more good news, and this was it,'' Strickley said.
The new facility was designed to throw out what Delphi had done before the Cortland plant. The addition of the all-electrics had several advantages, the least of which was the use of more-traditional 220 power lines and the ability to cool the facility better without the need to vent equipment indoors, Ellsworth said.
The facililty not only smells cleaner but is quiet. ``You can actually hear material moving through the pipes,'' said one Delphi worker, marveling at the change from the Warren facility.
From a corporate standpoint, the all-electric presses also bring a nice return on investment, Ellsworth said.
They are expected to reduce plant energy consumption by 55 percent, shave maintenance costs and save about $850,000 in capital for supplementary equipment.
Taking it global
The company already is looking at replacing machines in other parts of the world with the new system, Ellsworth said. At two plants in Mexico, Delphi Packard would like to phase out 15 machines over the next year and bring in all-electrics, he added. A similar schedule is planned gradually in other locations.
The several years of hard work has been paid back in efficiency and a quick return on the money spent, Ellsworth said.
The connector operation has come a long way, from a plant that was listing in downtown Warren to today's miracle of modern manufacturing in Vienna Township, Ellsworth said. Ultimately, Delphi had little choice.
``We could have replaced all the machines [in downtown Warren] and we still would have lost,'' he said. `We couldn't put off what we needed to do forever. We might as well get out of business if we can't do it right.''