SALINE, MICH. — Officials of MMI Engineered Solutions Inc. showed off a large new Negri Bossi Bi-Power injection molding press at an open house Dec. 4 — part of an expansion by the automotive molder that signals the robust auto sector will keep investing in machinery.
MMI bought the press — its 14th molding machine and, with 2,000-metric tons of clamping force, its largest molding machine — to keep up with demand for its specialized returnable packaging for automotive and custom molded car and truck parts like fan shrouds, bezels and fender extensions.
“We needed the equipment because we're growing,” said Doug Callahan, MMI's president and chief operating officer. “We grew about 30 percent this year and will continue to grow next year.”
MMI will generate $19 million in sales for 2013, he said.
The company invested $2 million overall, for the big Bi-Power, another 400-tonne Negri Bossi and an 85-tonne Nissei. All three injection molding machines make up a second manufacturing bay in the 80,000-square-foot headquarters plant in Saline. MMI also installed a new Thoreson-McCosh material handling system in the last two months. The large-tonnage Bi-Power began molding parts about six weeks ago, Callahan said.
For Negri Bossi, MMI gives the Italian machinery supplier an important showcase in North America for large-tonnage machines, and the automotive market. The Dec. 4 event started out with technical presentations at a hotel meeting room, then moved to MMI for lunch and plant tour.
Automakers and suppliers have made major investments in new technology coming out of the recession, lifting the U.S. injection molding machine market out of the doldrums to a respectable level of more than 3,000 presses a year.
Negri Bossi SpA began making large-tonnage injection molding machines around 2000. That made it a relative newcomer in that market, dominated by well-established nameplates like KraussMaffei and Engel.
“There is obviously a gestation period between starting from zero and achieving significant market penetration,” said Tony Firth, vice president and general manager of Negri Bossi North America, in New Castle, Del.
Firth said it wasn't easy to break into the big-tonnage market.
“Particularly with large machines, there is a natural tendency to go with what you know — or go with what you think you know. So our challenge has been to knock down those barriers and develop an identity in large machines, from scratch,” he said.
Negri Bossi has an installed base of large-tonnage injection presses in North America, mainly in automotive plants, but many of those customers keep manufacturing information close to the vest, Firth said. So the partnership with MMI is important.
“You've got to build one brick at a time, and what we lacked here, really, was a place where we could showcase machines,” he said. Negri Bossi can bring customers to the MMI factory to see the Bi-Power in action. Saline is close to the industrial Midwest, a major U.S. region for injection molding machines for processors in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana.
Negri Bossi makes Bi-Powers in clamping force sizes from 1,000 tonnes to a whopping 7,000 tonnes. The machinery company also makes large-tonnage, toggle presses under the Vector nameplate.
MMI was founded 40 years ago, as a maker of material handling bins to hold parts for auto manufacturing. Tom Connaughton, who is retired, has owned the company for the past 30 years.
Callahan said MMI's material handling products hold critical parts like crankshafts, cam shafts, intake manifolds, pistons and connector rods, all of them “things that need a significant amount of protection, that you don't want jostled around.” The company also makes “kitting trays” to hold parts in an exact position so robots can remove them on an automated assembly line.
Today, about half of MMI's sales come from material handling, and half from custom molding of fairly low-volume components for heavy truck and cars. The company does not try to compete with the high-volume molders, Callahan said.
MMI builds and designs its own molds. Through its ACT process (Adaptive Container Technology), MMI uses mold insert blocks to quickly customize returnable containers. Customers purchase an ACT mold base for parts for a general size. MMI machines the inserts, customized to hold specific auto parts, delivering them to the assembly plant.
“We've made their tooling investment low and their piece part low. Sol it's really allowed us to grow our business from that standpoint,” Callahan said.
Auto production rebounded sharply after the Great Recession in 2009 in North America. And the good times should keep rolling, said Mike Wall, director of automotive analysis for IHS Automotive. “We're still in the early innings of this recovery story that we're going through,” Wall said in a presentation at the seminar and open house.
North American plants should turn out 16.2 million cars and light trucks in 2013. That number should reach 18.1 million by 2019, he said. U.S. car sales are holding up, at about 15.6 units, after a steady recovery since a low of 10.4 million in 2009. Wall thinks sales could reach 16.5 — depending on the degree of political budget-ceiling gamesmanship in Washington.
“We need there to be some sort of a resolution one way or another to have consumers say, ‘I'm willing to drop 25 or 30 grand on a new vehicle,'” Wall said. Reasonable gas prices, and a rejuvenated construction and energy sector, are creating demand for pickup trucks.
The United States and Mexico are now exporting more cars than ever before, many of them assembled at transplant factories from Asian and European automakers.
And Wall said 36 new vehicle launches are scheduled for North America in 2014, more than twice the 16 this year. He said launches won't hit that peak in years after 2014, but they will remain at a pretty high level. That's good news for injection molding machinery makers, since new model launches are a major driver of capital investment in machinery and molds.
Firth said most of the new large-tonnage injection presses have already been installed for the 2014 new models, since for big machines, it takes at least a year from order to delivery. So he thinks large-tonnage press sales could dip a bit in the New Year. But small- and medium-tonnage machines should sell well, he said.
“For every large component, you've got a myriad of gidgets and gadgets. So the medium and small machines, because the lead time is shorter, the purchasing decisions for those machines tends to be much closer to the time of the vehicle launch,” he said.