German auto supplier Dr. Schneider Kunstoffwerke GmbH built its reputation on designing and molding intricate interior parts including heating and air conditioning registers and movable cup holders.
Now it is building those same capabilities in its North American unit, Dr. Schneider Automotive Systems Inc., and is reaching out to toolmakers and other firms in the region to make it happen.
``The whole infrastructure is building up now,'' said Wolfgang Steeb, president and chief executive officer of Lindenstrasse, Germany-based Dr. Schneider, during a May 10 interview at the company's Howell facility. ``We need to be independent from the corporate parent. That's our philosophy - that all plants be independent.''
The German firm has been injection molding since 1937 and making parts for the auto industry since 1956. The company is a midsize auto supplier, with nearly 250 million euros ($320.4 million) in sales last year, but it specializes in complex subassemblies filled with moving parts that can set it apart from its competitors.
The heating and air conditioning vent Dr. Schneider turns out for BMW AG has nearly 50 individual parts and takes two-shot injection molded pieces, painting, overmolding and laser etching.
Those kinds of contracts require a high level of complexity for both the company and its suppliers, Steeb said.
For the registers it began producing at the new Howell plant in 2004, the company relied on 100 different molds produced by its toolmakers in Germany, including molds with rotational inserts for two-shot production. But as it expands with new programs in the United States, it wants to develop relationships with nearby mold makers capable of producing the same types of tools.
``We are in the process of taking a lot of technology done in Europe to North America,'' said Willi Hoefer, general manager of the Howell facility. ``The tool technology is very high. We have gone looking for toolmakers here that are capable of working to the level of what we're doing in Europe.''
The company has connected with toolmaker Liberty Molds Inc. and plans to use it to produce tools for future products.
``To find a customer like this, especially now, the way things are in the auto industry, is very important for us,'' said Brian Scott, general manager for Portage, Mich.-based Liberty. ``We're very excited about what's going to happen with this in the future.''
The company just added two employees to its base of 30 workers, specifically to service and maintain molds for Dr. Schneider, he said.
Liberty Molds has made injection mold tooling for auto registers for years, Scott said. Teaming with Dr. Schneider represents another opportunity to grow with a respected European supplier as it builds its base in North America.
Dr. Schneider is just beginning to market its full product development capabilities within North America, said Ken Flood, assistant general manager.
First the company wanted to make sure it was well-established in Howell. The 61,000-square-foot site now houses nine Krauss-Maffei presses, with three more on the way this year. The facility also has a proprietary paint line and assembly areas.
The firm employs 60 in Howell now, with expectations it will grow to 200 employees within five years. As the business builds, Steeb said he expects the firm will look at additional sites in the South to keep up with the expanding auto business there.
Dr. Schneider also is growing in Eastern Europe, where it is adding a second facility in Poland and a plant in Slovakia, Steeb said.
The company sees its greatest potential in established auto markets that are anxious for improved technology, rather than lower-cost regions.
``This market has much more potential for us than the Asian market,'' he said.