Balancing act

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by Tim Wilson

Automotive OEMs challenged by market demands for innovation at a low cost

In the automotive sector, the buying public is more demanding than ever. People want quality and fuel efficiency at a good price. That message is driving all the way through the supply chain, with lighter weight materials changing the way vehicles are made. Still, there’s a catch: the regulatory environment is now increasingly strict, and that places limitations on materials and design.

“To meet upcoming fuel economy requirements, there is a trend in the auto industry toward advanced high strength steels (AHSS) to achieve weight reduction,” says L. Ray Osborne, director of engineering at Anchor Lamina, Windsor, ON. “But AHSS present forming challenges that typically do not occur with conventional low carbon alloy mild steels.”

To stay ahead of the curve, Anchor Lamina, a global company that manufactures die sets, steel plates, and metal fabrications for the automotive sector out of its Windsor location, must ensure that bend angles are up to snuff.

“One challenge is achieving consistent bend angles with conventional wipe tooling,” says Osborne. “This is leading many stamping companies to implement rotary bending in place of the conventional wipe tooling.”

Within the automotive sector, geometries are becoming more demanding. To get the most out of less material, precision then becomes the name of the game.

“Tolerances for our products are definitely tighter,” says Brendan Lane, general manager of Lanex Manufacturing, Maidstone, ON, a Tier 2 and Tier 3 automotive part supplier specializing in stampings, headedproducts, wire and tube forms, as well as assemblies. “However, the part itself is still pretty consistent with older designs.”

But that may not be true for long. Driven by the same requirement for lighter weights and lower costs, plastics and composites are making inroads into more and more aspects of automotive manufacturing, and must sync up with the same design and regulatory requirements that include AHSS.

“We have some parts that are overmoulded,” says Lane, who has yet to see much impact from plastics. “The only difficulty we have run into is aesthetics; any dirt on a part will taint lighter coloured plastics.”

To deal with the changes the competing regulatory interests demand–lighter parts for fuel efficiency, stronger and heavier parts for safety–many companies have stayed nimble by investing in lean manufacturing and real-time inventory systems. These should in theory reduce inventory risk in the context of demand fluctuation, but that isn’t always the case.

“Being a Tier 2 and Tier 3 supplier, we are generally the last to know of scheduling changes,” says Lane from Lanex. “This can make keeping the proper balance for inventory difficult.”

Things might be looking up, however, as the 2013 automotive survey by consulting firm PwC found that there is pent-up demand for new cars, with consumers now waiting longer than six years to trade in their old vehicles. And with the US economy expected to continue with its measured growth, innovative companies will thrive. In fact, PwC says the real challenge will be to find the skilled workforce to get the job done. SMT

Tim Wilson is a contributing editor. [email protected]


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