Times are tight, the auto industry is faltering and bankruptcies seem to lurk around every corner.
But that does not mean companies are not investing. They are, but they are also eyeing automation and improvements to their operations that will help them get more out of their machines, their resin and their employees.
``We're having our best year ever,'' said Holly Dolphin, marketing manager for T.A. Systems Inc., which designs and builds equipment used for automated assembly and production, and is expecting about $37 million in sales for 2008.
At the company's headquarters in Rochester Hills, T.A.'s 90 workers are creating production cells that will allow molders to weld attachments, add wiring clips, trim flash, paint or do any of dozens of other post-molding manufacturing steps by using robotics and other equipment. Its machines go into plants all over North America making new cars and trucks.
T.A. is not alone. Companies that can give molders an edge in both existing and future contracts are in demand.
``The second-largest expense category for any company is labor,'' said Jeff Mengel, a partner with consulting group Plante & Moran PLLC with offices in Chicago.
Reducing the labor content in any part allows firms to compete with low-wage countries. At the same time, using automation in high-volume work also can contribute to quality numbers.
``If we're just talking about managing labor content, that's one thing,'' he said. ``In reality, we're also talking about improvements in quality, in performance, in repeatability, in the things that are important to your customer base.''
During a June 17 interview at T.A., the company was busy getting equipment ready to ship out to auto suppliers that were about to build parts on new cars and trucks, which automakers would begin building in August. Typically, the company works with auto suppliers as they begin to lay out their manufacturing floor for new production, helping them determine the places to use automation.
T.A. works on 30 to 40 new part launches every year, Dolphin said. One cell about to be shipped out to a customer was slated to go into line where its computerized robotic systems would trim flash and add clips to three different instrument panels as they came out of the press.
Some technology goes into use even earlier. At RJG Inc. in Traverse City, Mich., consultant/trainer Gary Chastain is leading molders through ways to use information they already have to help them bid on future projects.
``We are learning to build the perfect process prior to even cutting the tool,'' he said.
By coordinating data from engineering specifications, injection mold press statistics and resin-flow studies, RJG can predict where problems may arise and what it would take to fix those problems long before molders start up their equipment. That helps them know what work to bid on and set a realistic price for that work.
While the company is best known for its process-control system, Chastain noted that customers are learning more about what they can do with existing equipment and are discovering real savings can be found in-house. His staff of five full-time and two part-time trainers cannot keep up with demand.
``Some people are finally understanding that they need to be a step ahead,'' he said.
Chastain noted one firm that makes a simple injection molded part was able to save $80,000 in production costs in one year. Those are the kinds of statistics that draw attention to the boosts technology can bring.
Bo Andersson, group vice president, global purchasing and supply chain for General Motors Corp., warned suppliers during the auto industry's Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City that the company expects other firms to take care of their own problems before asking for help. Molders must show GM that it is not looking for a bailout without doing its own homework first, he said.
``Before you come to them for relief on raw-material costs, they will want to know if you have your total cost management under control,'' Mengel said. ``It's up to you to demonstrate that you have things under control.''