Standing just inside the manufacturing floor at International Automotive Components North America Inc.'s Huron plant, plant manager Chuck Raymont shows off some of the parts the facility has turned out over the years, under a variety of owners.
The plant now is part of the new IAC, but was part of Lear Corp., and Automotive Industries Inc. before that.
Raymont himself has a history with different companies, including Lear and automaker Chrysler LLC. He mentions that Steve Sauder, technical services manager, has spent 22 years at auto suppliers from small headliner compression molders to major firms like the former Collins & Aikman Corp. and Lear, while operations manager Preston Lopetrone has put in more than 20 years with international companies.
Together, the plant leadership, its employees and the plant itself all represent decades of manufacturing - and are an example of how the new IAC has gone from concept to full-bore production in two years.
``The biggest misnomer about IAC out there is that we're a startup company,'' James Keppler, vice president of North American operations for Dearborn, Mich.-based IAC, said during a March 19 interview at the Huron plant. ``We're not. We're a well-established operation with more than 100 years of auto heritage between our parts.''
New York financier Wilbur Ross first began bringing together parts of distressed suppliers of automotive interior parts under one roof in 2006 to create a new firm that could combine operational strengths with a financial group's fiscal discipline.
The biggest parts all came together in August 2007 as Southfield, Mich.-based Lear rolled its plastics-intensive interior group into IAC in exchange for a share in the new firm, and IAC picked up parts of bankrupt Collins & Aikman.
Now all those parts of IAC are creating something new.
``IAC is coming in and applying a new dynamic to the industry,'' said Laurie A. Harbour, managing director of consulting group Stout Risius Ross Inc. ``They're private equity-run, but with a solid manufacturing base.''
Private equity has gotten involved in the auto supply business before, with mixed results.
Ross comes with a pedigree that includes reinvigoration of the U.S. steel industry in the 1990s. That background has given IAC a different sheen than many of its competitors, and Keppler said the firm has a long-term outlook that gives it an edge in a tough economy.
``I know that financially we don't have to make short-term decisions that other companies have to do now,'' Keppler said.
The company also is banking on former Lear executives' history in past acquisitions within Lear, which they said shows that the company and its leaders know how to bring multiple firms together under one corporate banner.
Taken together, the history and long-term outlook allows IAC the opportunity to invest in ``best practices'' strategies now at its plants that will pay off in the long run, while its lower debt gives it more time to allow those strategies to pay off.
At Huron, the company is dealing with the short-term effects of an ongoing labor strike at American Axle, which has halted production at some auto assembly plants - and in turn led to layoffs there. But at the same time, the company is preparing for major vehicle launches later this year, with ``launch clocks'' showing the days and hours remaining until full production and is making sure the plant and its employees are ready.
``We've moved presses around; we've worked to make sure the material flow is in line so that everyone can see what we need at a glance,'' Souders said.
A robotic assembly module the company added next to two 24,000-ton presses insert 47 clips on each instrument panel carrier as it comes out of the press, automatically checking each in line, eliminating the possibility of human error.
The plant has added in-mold monitoring capabilities using RJG Inc.'s process control system in 26 of its 36 presses during the past two years, making it possible to adjust pressure and molding continually in the press on each part. At an on-floor command center, Raymont points to the data coming from each RJG-enabled press, allowing everyone from press operators to top management to see at a glance whether the presses are operating according to spec, and immediately track down any problem.
``This has been one of the big evolutions in our plant, real-time feedback,'' Keppler said.
While other manufacturers may be undertaking the same manufacturing improvements, IAC's moves are taking place under the terms of a new corporate structure.
There is a global board of directors, but not a global office. Instead, IAC North America has its own operating structure - which also oversees IAC operations in China and India - while there is a separate International Automotive Components entity in Europe that has responsibility for that area. The two units, along with IAC facilities in Japan and South America, cooperate on international projects, but also can focus on their own regions.
``We say that we have global strategy with local execution,'' Keppler said.
IAC still is bringing together some elements that it picked up in the past few months and expects to see the benefits continue to build.
Through the acquisition of Collins & Aikman's carpet and acoustics division, IAC picked up an acoustics-testing laboratory in Plymouth, Mich., that is the equivalent of anything the automakers have, but had been shuttered because of cost cutting within C&A. IAC now is reviving those capabilities at that site.
Collins & Aikman also brought IAC compression molding toolmaking capabilities in Old Fort, N.C., from its carpet facilities that IAC can tap into to improve manufacturing of its headliners in Port Huron, Mich. At the same time, it plans to move some headliner production to North Carolina, adding to its product mix for automakers in the Southeast.
The company also just launched production of an injection molded energy absorber that costs less than a traditional foam absorber. The product, for the 2008 Nissan Altima coupe, is made with high crystalline polypropylene.
IAC is continuing to invest in Lear-developed technology for two-shot molding capabilities that it can use at other sites. Keppler noted the company is investigating the potential of three- and four-shot production.
``That's what manufacturing is at IAC,'' he said. ``We've been able to take the best of the best from a lot of places and bring it under one roof.''