By Rhoda Miel, Plastics News Staff
Saline, Michigan -- Near the middle of the western third of the massive auto interiors plant in Saline, plastic tarps hang from ceiling to floor, warning workers to stay away.
"Demolition zone," they note in large red lettering as forklift trucks dart past them.
Behind those tarps, workers are busy breaking down old walls, moving old equipment out of the way and creating a new work space that will eventually house large injection moulding presses for Faurecia SA.
It is a massive project, but only a small part of what Faurecia is overseeing as it shifts the work flow at the 1.6 million-sq.ft Saline facility - formerly part of Ford Motor Co.'s Automotive Components Holdings LLC - into a state-of-the-art lean manufacturing powerhouse for a new generation of parts.
Faurecia has a 21-year time line to complete the transformation, taking on a project that many in the industry have thought could not be done.
"It's a good challenge, let's say that," said Ray Boufford, vice president of strategic transformation for Faurecia, who is overseeing the project at Saline, and was part of the team considering proposals for the plant before the deal was completed in May.
It took a year-and-a-half of negotiations and planning between Faurecia; Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford; its wholly owned ACH; and eventually Rush Group Ltd. of Wayne, Mich., which will take on much of the assembly work through the newly formed joint venture Detroit Manufacturing Systems.
The companies, working under the code name Project Oak, chosen for the oak tree in front of the plant, had to determine in advance if Faurecia could even make a business case for the site.
The supplier says it has, and despite the size and complexity, Boufford maintains it is all possible.
"A lot of it is going to be simple stuff," he during a 1 Nov tour of the plant, which has launched a restructuring even in the midst of full production. "The equipment was already here, and we're empowering the people."
The final deal has Faurecia taking over production and the book of business at Saline. Some of the assembly work shifts to the new joint venture with Rush, with DMS specialising in cockpit assembly. DMS also may have some injection moulding as well in the future.
Faurecia will turn Saline into a "technology plant," with much of the capital-equipment-intensive work including molding, vacuum forming for skin and foam-in-place production for soft-touch areas.
ACH still owns the building, with Faurecia - with global offices in Nanterre, France, and North American headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan - leasing the facility. Once it completes its conversion and DMS has its assembly operations up and running in Detroit, Faurecia will use only about half of the 1.6 million sq .ft. The other half will revert to ACH.
The companies did not disclose how much the renovation will cost.
"The execution risk is obviously going to be an issue," said industry consultant Kim Korth, president of IRN Inc. of Grand Rapids, Michigan, about the task facing the companies. "But with Faurecia, you have a company that has some expertise and they must have known what they're getting into."
From an outsider's perspective, Korth noted that Ford has made a commitment to both Faurecia and DMS to launch the project, while for Faurecia the existing injection moulding presses add capacity for production during a time that the auto industry in North America is expanding and suppliers need extra capacity.
Here's a short history of the site to give some perspective to the size of the task Faurecia has taken on.
Ford originally built the plant in the 1960s, during a time when the auto industry was built on vertical integration, making most of its key parts in-house. The Saline site reflects that concept both in size - big enough to provide parts to Ford's assembly plants throughout the region - and in layout.
It was designed by a company accustomed to auto assembly plants and has the look and feel of an auto assembly plant, rather than a streamlined parts plant turning out just-in-time components. Materials-handling trucks pass along corridors between production areas constantly. Motorised carts ferry both people and parts from one end of the building to the other. Supervisors have three-wheeled bicycles to get them throughout the plant.
Finished parts travel overhead in a conveying system similar to those that carry seats or cockpits or bumper fascia to their assembly point in an auto plant.
When the auto industry moved away from vertical integration strategies, Ford spun off a new company - Visteon Corp. - to take over its parts operations and Saline became part of Visteon in 2000. Five years later, Visteon was facing financial problems and struck a deal with Ford for the automaker to take back some of Visteon's plants, including the Saline facility. The plant then became part of Ford-controlled ACH while Ford sought a new buyer.
A deal with Johnson Controls Inc. to buy the plant fell apart in 2008, leading many industry watchers to predict the Saline plant would be among the ACH facilities that would close.
"The people here have been in limbo for a long time," Boufford said.
But even as the auto industry was rocked by the economic slowdown and the Great Recession, rather than shut down, things got busier at Saline.
First, ACH decided to shut down the sprawling injection moulding facility in Utica, Michigan, and combine production from both facilities in Saline. Moulding, assembly and business moved in to open space under Saline's big roof.
Then, as the auto industry shuddered, many other Ford suppliers were hit and suddenly forced to shut down production. ACH and Ford had space in Saline, so the plant once seen as too big to survive became the perfect harbour in an economic storm. It had space and a trained staff to take on work relocated in an emergency situation.
By early 2011, the plant had about 2,000 employees and more than $1 billion worth of business.
But because much of that growth had come in rapidly and sometimes even during a crises, there had been little opportunity to plan. Equipment would go in where there was space, and workers could turn around production as quickly as possible, rather than what would be the best overall work flow, said Rob Stammler, technology operations director for Faurecia at Saline.
Stammler, who has worked at the plant since before Visteon took over, is now overseeing much of the physical transformation, and he knows there is a lot to do.
Just at the front entrance, well before the shop floor, the company is pulling up old carpet, painting and clearing up office space. One big conference room has just been renovated and reopened while concrete walls of another conference room - dubbed the "white room" - are hung with boards showing the status of every project in the building.
Work on the production floor will be the biggest phase of the project.
The 57 injection moulding presses, ranging from 165-4000 tons in clamping force, now are located in four different areas of the plant.
When Faurecia is done with its revamping in Saline, only seven of those presses will remain in the same location. And to complicate the changes even more, the company must do that work even as production continues all around them. The plant is running three shifts for injection moulding and up to two shifts for assembly.
The largest and oldest presses, including Ube machines first put in place by Ford in the 1990s, will be repaired and improved for quick mould changes, equipped with new robotics where needed and given a fresh coat of paint to match the white that Faurecia uses in all of its global operations.
Those large presses will be placed in two parallel lines on the west side of the building, with mould-maintenance operations placed between the two lines.
Smaller presses will be placed in their own area just to the south of the large presses, forming an L-shape within the plant's injection moulding area. The centralised placement will make it easier to coordinate material flow, streamlining production.
In addition to the older presses, Faurecia worked with ACH throughout the Project Oak negotiations to order new presses and other equipment as needed. Two new Engel presses came into the building with Faurecia's standard white paint, Boufford notes.
"We were at a point [in negotiations] where we were able to order to our specifications," he said.
Once everything is in place, finished parts will go into vertical racks where workers can easily tell at a glimpse how their stock of parts is for final assembly of door panels or other parts.
The current layout, Stammler noted, sometimes has injection molding of substrates on one side of the building and final assembly all the way on the other side. It could take 10 minutes or longer to get parts moved across the building when needed, which adds unneeded downtime. A work-flow map of production today would show a tangled mess of lines tracking both people and material.
Once the entire floor is revamped, fork trucks will be limited to the warehouse area to handle new material coming in or finished goods heading out.
Faurecia also will be adding more lights, fresh white paint - replacing a brown colour scheme that made the building look even darker - and polishing floors. The skin-forming production area was one of the first to get a full demolition and overhaul.
The polished floors and additional lights make the spot brighter than its neighbouring production sites.
Faurecia's production system signs are placed prominently, tracking statistics and problems both with printed sheets, but also in handwritten notes. The company's standard practice globally relies on workers noting issues in their own handwriting. It not only tells other workers and supervisors at a glance what any problems may be, but also gives the employees a sense of "ownership" in their work that a computer data sheet cannot, Stammler said.
Getting the workers to buy into the changes is just as big of a project as moving machines.
"We have to change the culture," Boufford said.
On the day Faurecia took over at Saline, it handed out 10,000 shirts with its logo to workers.
"Both Ford and Faurecia are committed to making this a world-class manufacturing centre," he said. "We've got a great team and a lot of energy and what we're trying to accomplish can be done."