Recently, automotive interior specialist International Automotive Components North America was asked to take over production of an instrument panel.
The previous supplier had wrestled with a blotchy surface on the panel for three years, and its customer was forced to work around it.
Within three months, IAC had identified and fixed the problem, checking the material, the processing equipment and the conditions in the field that caused it in the first place, according to the company.
That was possible, said Rose Ryntz, director of advanced engineering material development for Troy-based IAC, because the company has embraced vertical integration during the past three years and has developed in-house expertise on everything from prototyping and testing to compounding and material development.
That's pretty dramatic, she said. We even had to develop a test method to see if our suspicions were right in the first place.
Vertical integration was at the heart of the auto industry when it began, but its use has ebbed and flowed during the past decades. In the 1990s and early 2000s, companies were quick to shed what were seen as unneeded expenses. Instead, they specialized. But during the past few years especially as the economy produced an unstable supply base some molders have re-embraced vertical integration to have better control over production. They focus on specific programs where they believe they will have the most impact.
IAC has taken it to heart more than most, said Jeff Mengel, a partner with industry analysts Plante & Moran PLLC in Chicago.
While some companies may be able to adapt some aspects of vertical integration, and a few small firms have been able to bring more functions in-house, a large company like IAC needs a range of talent and experience on a large scale that makes it difficult for others to copy, according to Mengel.
IAC is now compounding material at seven plants in North America, has in-house prototyping and testing, produces all of its own foam for headliners at its plant in Port Huron, Mich., refines cut-and-sew operations for leather-wrapped interiors and is producing its own proprietary blends for key parts like skins made of PVC, thermoplastic olefins and polyurethane.
The combination does more than just ensure a steady supply of materials in the face of fluctuating resin prices, Ryntz said during an April 19 interview in Troy. It gives the company the ability to streamline nearly every part of the production, allowing it and its customer to speed up the time to market.
IAC's product development and validation operations, housed in neighboring buildings near Interstate 75 in Troy, show a cross-section of the vertical integration the company has developed since 2008. Parts of the programs existed in companies IAC purchased previously, said Wayne Waller, vice president of engineering, but the major focus began three years ago, with 18 employees in the validation and rapid-prototyping facility and another 19 in the development building.
The company's rapid-prototyping operations use three-dimensional printers that can turn out parts in polypropylene, nylon and ABS. Its environmental testing systems can mimic the intense cold and extreme heat requirements from automakers. While IAC does not make airbags, its high-speed cameras capture tests nearly every day as the company checks whether the instrument panels it produces fail under crash conditions.
Airbag testing can give the company feedback not only on the instrument panel skin itself, but also on whether its performance is altered by foam and adhesives used in production, Ryntz noted.
Interior parts are checked for noise and vibration in an acoustics lab, while sunlamps check for fading or wear a car would sustain in a desert environment.
Each step allows IAC to learn more about how its parts perform, Waller said. While there are outside companies that do very well with prototyping, testing and validation, he said the firm is able to streamline the process and also draw continuously from the data that is available.
If there are tests we find ourselves farming out a lot, we go and get the equipment so we can do it ourselves, he said.
In the product-development area, IAC is coming up with its own blends to give just the right feel and touch to the surfaces drivers interact with. The haptics of each material blend involves both compression the amount of deflection of a skin and the foam beneath it and the harder-to-define sensation of how slick the surface is, Ryntz said.
By starting from standard base resins like PVC or TPOs, the company can find the right custom blend of additives its customers want. It can then go even further, using a twin-screw extruder to produce its own pellets on-site in the production-development lab, injection molding presses to test material in the same equipment that is used in full-scale production and automation equipment for welding and other post-molding processes.
The Troy facility even has a four-shot, 1,650-ton Husky press to test multishot production.
All that equipment, Ryntz said, allows the company to fine-tune manufacturing specifically to each program and to each facility. It can produce different pellet sizes on the extruder to dial-in just the right conditions for a plant in Mexico or a plant in Ohio.
Workers who will oversee a new part's launch come to Troy to try out the tool, resin blend and assembly using equipment identical to what they will find at home.
There is crossover between the two buildings, and not only in testing the performance of new blends in environmental conditions or airbag deployment. The prototyping operation, for instance, can turn out a sun-visor substrate on a 3-D printer and hand it off to the production building to test cut-and-sew techniques on plastic and leather skins to see how the final part will look.
That is not to say IAC intends to bring everything in-house, Ryntz said. The company is focusing on key areas such as product development or haptics where customers can see a value to IAC's offerings.
A base PP in a door? We're not going to do that, she said. We're not trying to be the jack of all trades, but to be the master at what we do.