Manufacturing is not dead in North America as far as Dura Automotive Systems Inc. is concerned. It is just undergoing a transition.
By creating a new module system for gearshifts and reconfiguring its shop floor, the company has won new contracts that have revitalized a Michigan factory, saved its customer money and allowed the firm to ship products made in the United States to Mexico, South Korea and China.
``We were seeing year-over-year declines in our shifter business, and now we're seeing our orders go up,'' Tim Stephens, vice president and general manager of shifter/cable systems for North America, said Aug. 1 during the Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City.
With the launch of the first new module gearshift system in Fremont, Mich. - being shipped to Hermosillo, Mexico, for use in the Lincoln Zephyr sedan - the company also is saving Ford Motor Co. an estimated $25 million over the life of its contract.
Future contracts will add to the savings, since Dura can use the same standardized components under the surface, allowing it to spread tooling costs over multiple vehicle platforms, he said.
Dura was able to cut costs by changing the design of the gearshifts and changing the way they are made.
It began by creating a universal core base for each gearshift. The company then put money into the graphics and controls that drivers actually see and handle, rather than designing a separate base unit for each platform.
``Our shifter model was broken,'' Stephens said. ``We had to fix it.''
In the case of Dura's contract with Ford, one base is serving nine different models of cars and trucks.
``We're commonizing some elements, but every shifter still looks different, works different, has different knobs and bezels.''
In tooling alone, by using a standard base unit, the company may spend about $400,000 in molds, compared with $1 million to $1.5 million under the previous standards, Stephens said.
Dura then topped that breakthrough by altering its manufacturing floor to create what it calls ``supercell'' manufacturing pods.
The old way of making shifters simply was not as lean as it could be. Shifter bases, made by an outside supplier, were shipped and stored at Fremont, taking up floor space. From there, they would head to manufacturing cells for final assembly.
Now Dura is investing in new injection molding equipment to make the universal bases in-house, eliminating wasted warehouse space while allowing it to produce parts as they're needed.
Those common bases then are delivered to the central part of a manufacturing cell and from there are tracked out through final assembly for individual vehicles.
Dura had in-house molding previously in Fremont, but purchased the bases from an outside supplier.
Additional presses are located near each molding cell to produce components as needed to complete each system. For many of the finished aesthetic components, Dura relies on outside molders that specialize in finished parts with chrome or other graphic elements.
The change allows the company to produce gearshifts for Ford with 25 people, compared withthe 75 required under the old manufacturing process, Stephens said.
``We've rearranged the entire facility around the cell modules,'' he said.
Ford is the first carmaker officially signed on to Dura's universal concept, but Dura said other automakers are interested - both in North America and overseas.