Deep in rural Morelos, a state renowned for its sugar cane, weekend tourism and Nissan car assembly plant, a sophisticated automotive accessory design and manufacturing operation is making waves internationally.
The company is Air Design SA de CV, whose customers include a dozen of the world's largest automakers and at least one Tier 1 lighting supplier, Hella KGaA Hueck & Co.
With 200 employees, including 35 designers, Air Design's reputation is growing so fast that it plans to open an office in either Colombia or Brazil next year.
It already is developing accessories for General Motors Corp. and Renault in Colombia and Ford Motor Co. in Brazil, on top of the heavy workload it has in Mexico, where it equips about 30,000 new vehicles per year with plastic accessories, such as spoilers and fascias, before they are delivered to the dealers.
The accessories' value ranges between $150 and $800 per car.
In early November, Air Design began producing a complete catalogue of exterior and interior accessories for the new Fiat 500. The accessories will be for the European market and include items such as spoilers, consoles, rear-trunk organizers and cargo racks.
The deal is a result of the company's relationship with Sparco SpA, a leading Italian auto parts and accessory company based in Turin, Italy.
Air Design has almost finished the development of a complete aerodynamic body kit for the GM Aveo, which is assembled in San Luis Potosí, Mexico.
The firm designed the spoiler for the new-generation Volkswagen Pointer that will appear in Mexico in December, and is designing the rear spoiler for the Renault Clio, sold in Colombia.
``We are a company like very few in the world, in that we can handle the complete cycle of design and development and production under one roof,'' said Miguel Ãvalos Sartorio, Air Design's managing director.
The company works with thermoset plastics and polyurethane, which it uses to make skin foam for steering wheels and dashboards. The PU comes from Salt Lake City-based Huntsman Corp.
The ABS sheet Air Design uses to make thermoformed spare-tire covers, for the likes of the Jeep Wrangler, comes from Senoplast Klepsch & Co. GmbH, which has a plant in Queretaro.
Ãvalos Sartorio, 48, said the specialty equipment market in the United States is worth $38.8 billion a year and is growing 15-20 percent annually.
``Most vehicle manufacturers depend on accessories for their profits,'' he said in a late-October interview at his Morelos office. He added, however, that automakers find accessories too expensive or troublesome to handle themselves.
``So, even though we are small, we have become strategically important to our customers in Mexico and abroad,'' he said.
Ãvalos Sartorio, a qualified agricultural engineer, founded Air Design in 1991 with his father, Miguel Ãvalos Zevada, and brother, Carlos, both trained chemical engineers.
Together, they have 60 years of experience in the automotive industry. Ãvalos senior, 79, is a former manufacturing and engineering director for Chrysler LLC in Mexico.
Air Design has annual sales of $10 million, Ãvalos Sartorio said.
``We've had a difficult year because of the slowdown in the automotive industry, but we had 40 percent growth in 2005 and 100 percent growth in 2006.''
Sales remained static in 2007 and, according to Ãvalos Sartorio, a similar situation is likely in 2008 and 2009.
``But there's also a great opportunity for companies like ours because the OEMs can't handle the special editions alone,'' he said.
Using the latest computer-aided-design technology, Air Design develops products in its 17,000-square-foot design center before manufacturing them next door at its 75,000-square-foot factory.
According to Miguel Ãvalos Sartorio, in the past two years the company has invested about $5 million in new equipment, buying from such companies as Tarus Products Inc., which makes computer numerically controlled milling machines.
Other equipment used in the manufacturing plant includes a VM-3 vertical mold-making machine, bought from Haas Automation Inc. of Oxnard, Calif.
For PU processing, Air Design bought equipment from GM and converted it to help save energy, said Miguel Ãvalos Zevada.
The company has five high-pressure PU injection machines, supplied by Admiral Inc. of Akron, Ohio, and Milacron Inc. of Cincinnati.
For one particular vehicle, which the family cannot name for contractual reasons, the company has been working directly with Volkswagen AG, based in Wolfsburg, Germany. The project involves supplying exterior accessories to Volkswagen assembly lines for the first time.
``Previously we have supplied VW with accessories but not for their line products,'' said Miguel Ãvalos Sartorio.
``Generally, they use thermoplastic or polypropylene [for exterior accessories]. In this case we are using high density polyurethane for reaction injection molding.''
Currently, the company is equipping all the Peugeot Grand Raid sport utility vehicles, imported into Mexico from France, with items such as skid plates before they are sent to the dealers. The installation is done dockside in the port of Veracruz.
In the past 12 months, Air Design has worked on similar projects for GM, Ford, Volkswagen, Spanish carmaker SEAT SA and Renault, at Altamíra on the Gulf Coast; and Manzanillo, Salina Cruz and Mazatlan on the Pacific Coast.
``In the case of the Ford EcoSport, 100 percent of the cars come from Brazil without accessories. We install them at the dockside,'' Miguel Ãvalos Sartorio said.
``Ford and GM are making big investments in Mexico, especially now that manufacturing in the U.S. and Europe is becoming so expensive,'' he added.
``And Air Design is seeking new partners and joint ventures We can't compete against high-volume companies or low-labor cost countries like China, so we concentrate on niche markets.''
Air Design's design center was built in Morelos, where the sun shines 356 days a year, because, according to the managing director, ``it was the closest place we could find to paradise.'' The center houses 20 different high-powered computer stations, where designers use software like Catia, Alias and Pro/Engineer.
The building is an open plan, with glass walls.
The company, which also has a few major clients outside the automotive industry, gets some of its design ideas from students across the world. About 50 of such students are employed on a temporary basis every year in exchange for board and lodging and a small salary.
``They stay for up to a year and we teach them and learn,'' said Ãvalos Sartorio.