The future of TI Automotive Ltd.'s technology plans are reflected in two 12-foot-deep pits at its new Georgia fuel-tank plant.
Each 1,200-square-foot hole one day will house the automated equipment needed to manufacture the company's ``ship in a bottle'' fuel tanks, which meet the toughest fuel-emission standards the United States has created so far.
By April, a new six-layer blow molding machine will be housed just above one of the pits, joining a production system already in place on an adjacent line in Lavonia. Together, the two lines will have the capacity to make more than 700,000 SIB tank systems annually.
``Nowhere in the world can we make more [partial zero emission vehicle] products than we'll be able to do right here,'' said Howard Duxbury, TI president of global fuel systems, referring to the most stringent standard for gasoline-fueled cars and trucks.
``These two here will be a fabulous, fabulous opportunity,'' he said during a June 7 interview in Lavonia.
The Georgia facility is the second wholly owned tank-production site in North America for TI, which has headquarters in Warren, Mich., and Oxford, England.
Even while beefing up its capabilities in the United States, the company is laying out plans for a new tank-manufacturing facility in Thailand to supply Asian customers, and recently launched a brake and fuel line operation in Turkey.
The $30 million, 145,000-square-foot plant in Lavonia already is booked to capacity with orders to supply tanks for BMW AG's X5, which will be built in Spartanburg, S.C., and Hyundai Motor Co.'s Santa Fe, set for production in Montgomery, Ala.
Prototype production at TI will begin in September, with 130 employees at work when full output begins in 2006.
The site will house two 150-ton, 10-bar blow molding machines. One of the machines, a refurbished model, is in place now. Once fully operational, each production line will be able to make 68 tanks and process 2,400 pounds of high density polyethylene per hour.
The first tanks to be molded in Georgia are standard multilayer systems that meet California's Low Emission Vehicle II - or LEVII - standard for emission control. ``Ship in a bottle'' is TI's name for upgraded versions that meet the ``partial zero emission vehicle'' level.
With SIB, the company moves some components normally found outside the tank into the tank itself, blow molding around them. Any leaks that could seep from joints or seals are then held inside, rather than escaping into the atmosphere.
TI created and launched production of the SIB tanks in its Rastatt, Germany, production and technology operation. It has made a small number of them at its Ossian, Ind., plant; those relied on extensive hand labor to prepare the interior assemblies and the equipment to mold around them, said Manouchehr Kambakhsh, vice president of global advanced engineering.
In Lavonia, workers will prepare the interior components on the floor, then transfer them into the pit, where automated equipment will prepare them for the machine. Once ready, they will rise up to the blow molding line.
``Rastatt is our lead factory now, globally,'' Duxbury said. ``This one is intended to take over from Rastatt. ``This is the single largest investment we've made in the history of the company.''
The Georgia plant was designed specifically for automated production of the tanks, and will become the company's North American lead on SIB. The production system is flexible enough to transfer from LEVII tanks to SIB production as needed, said plant manager Joseph Roznowski.
Automakers will not necessarily need to use PZEV tanks to meet California's requirements, said Joel Kopinsky, a principal with industry consultants ITB Group Ltd. of Novi, Mich. Manipulating other parts of the vehicle or fuel system - together with complex negotiations between corporations and government officials - can produce compliant cars.
But increasing use of plastic tanks warrants technology and production investments, he said.
The facility also will house a Kautex three-dimensional suction blow molding machine to make fuel filler pipes, the first time the technology has been used in North America for those specific parts, which are traditionally metal.
The Kautex machine will be set up at the Georgia plant this year.
TI is expanding, but doing so carefully, said Brian Lindsay, commercial managing director for global fuel systems. The firm needs to have global connections and respond to local technology requirements, while also moving cautiously into new regions.
``If we promise something and don't deliver, the penalty is harsh,'' he said.
TI needs to make sure it can afford to meet customer expectations, expanding only when it makes sense, he said.
In its brake and fuel lines business, the firm creates satellite plants geared toward specific customer needs, feeding the smaller operations from larger sites that have more-expensive processing infrastructure.
Fuel tanks are not as simple, though. A blow molding operation like the new facility in Georgia is expensive. Even adding another production line to an existing plant could cost another $10 million, Duxbury said.
The complete tank systems, meanwhile, are difficult to ship long distances, making it necessary to have production in regions near TI customers.
For instance, the new plant in Chonburi, Thailand, opening within 12 months, will allow the firm to access customers in multiple countries while keeping an eye on labor costs.
``You know how proud we are to be a Toyota supplier, but we can't afford to be everywhere Toyota is,'' Lindsay said. ``We try to pick those places where we can be at our best.
``Not everybody who is expanding across the globe is going to be successful.''