Sometimes being a specialist is not enough.
Auburn Engineering Inc. already had a mold-making niche, producing prototypes - primarily for the auto industry - using aluminum, rubber and sterolithography machines. The company turned out tools that were used to check the fit, look, feel and style of everything from instrument panels to exterior trim and functional parts.
But building prototypes for the auto industry means surviving in a business climate that swings like a pendulum, said Auburn President Reid Scott during an April 11 interview at the Rochester Hills-based company. Sometimes automakers want prototype parts for every piece of a new car. Sometimes the drive to cut costs means they want none.
The current attitude, he said, is to have prototype tooling made for key parts that customers will see and feel, but not ones that are not as vital to the overall look or performance of a car.
Those shifts make it harder to make long-term decisions.
In response, Auburn has turned to a new plan to help stabilize business: low-volume molding with a special emphasis on producing aftermarket parts for the auto industry.
The aftermarket car parts business is substantial, worth more than $10 billion annually in parts such as spoilers, specialty fascias, roof racks and tonneau covers for trucks in the U.S. alone. Much of that work is done by small shops and sold through independent stores.
Automakers would like a bigger share of that market, though, and have begun building on their own abilities to sell aftermarket parts they design, and then sell through the dealer network. But with their names attached, Scott said, the companies want to ensure a certain quality level. That is hard to find from a company that is also a low-volume specialist, since most automotive molders are geared up to produce tens or even hundreds of thousands of parts, not 1,000-1,500.
Auburn, he said, offers both low volume and a comfort level with the auto industry's way of doing things.
``We don't want to be a high-volume producer,'' General Manager Tim Simonelli said.
The company has been making specialty parts for Mazda vehicles since it started low-volume producing, working on everything from the concept sketch to tooling, processing, assembly and even delivery to the dealerships.
``This personalization idea is very big in the industry, thinking about how they can make the vehicle more presentable,'' Scott said.
Since launching low-volume production in conjunction with prototype and low-volume tooling, the company has expanded from four presses to 14, with a separate, 56,000-square-foot building dedicated to processing.
Even as Auburn builds its new market presence for automakers, it also sees other business opportunities to marry its two specialties. The maker of a power tool wanted to create 120 versions of a new nail gun on the market to beta test it with contractors and build a word-of-mouth reputation for parts made using overmolding and vibration welding. Auburn's prototype design and low-volume focus offered the ability to do that.
``That's the fun part,'' Simonelli said. ``We get to work with companies early on and influence the design issues.''
Currently, Auburn has about half of its income from molding, the other half from prototype tooling and is looking at opportunities to increase both.