British custom injection molder W.H. Smith & Sons (Tools) Ltd. has made a name for itself in the automotive world, producing gearshift knobs for millions of vehicles around the world.
To drive up its sales in Europe and beyond, the Sutton Coldfield, England-based company has developed a new in-mold technology for knob production, allowing it to injection mold plastic onto leather.
Smith's success in its niche has meant that more than 10 million vehicles worldwide now are fitted with its plastic or leather gearshift knobs. Today, the molder supplies well over 1 million knobs per year.
``We are hoping that figure will increase significantly as we introduce our new process of injection molding onto leather,'' said Smith Managing Director Colin Sarson. The process will complement the firm's output of knobs covered in hand-stitched leather, he added.
Smith's success in the automotive sector was recognized earlier this year when it received a regional supplier achievement award for 2004 from Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing Europe.
Only a few months ago, Smith suffered the loss of MG Rover Group Ltd. business when the British volume carmaker went into receivership. But now the molder is looking forward to a brighter future.
It recently won new business worth £3 million ($5.3 million) to mold interior door handles for the BMW Mini, work formerly handled by Collins & Aikman Corp.'s plant in Redditch, England, which closed at the end of September.
Today, Smith, an old, established molder, operates a large mold shop and runs more than 100 injection presses, including some supplied by Engel, with clamping forces of 22-1,500 tons. Responding to cost-conscious customers particularly in the automotive area, Smith is automated with robot-assisted molding.
It was back in the 1980s that Smith began molding plastic gear knobs, but eight years ago, the board saw a gap in the market and began making custom, handcrafted and leather-covered tops. Of the world market for leather-based gear knobs - comprising about 60 million vehicles - the molder provides nearly 3 percent.
Smith supplies Toyota plants in the United Kingdom, France, Czech Republic and Turkey as well as plants of other major automotive companies.
In the fiercely competitive automotive market, Smith offers in-house design, toolmaking, injection molding, finishing including ultrasonic welding, hot-foil decorating and printing, and assembly.
The firm also produces other interior products including hand-brake grips and gaiters.