Automakers and the supply chain are checking out the latest machinery for assembling instrument panels, door trim, headliners, and other interior plastics at a new technical center in Michigan.
"No other tooling and equipment supplier in North America has a facility that serves as a one-stop shop for the prototyping and production of interior plastic components," Jeff Daily, President and CEO of Frimo North America, said about the company's new $5 million technical center in Wixom.
The 15,000-ft² (1400-m²) center features tooling and equipment for forming vehicle interior skins, producing and joining the substrates behind the touch surfaces, scoring airbags, and completing other tasks.
"Before a company goes through the risk and cost of building a tool and/or machine based on an idea, Frimo's engineering and technical experts can work to build a low-cost prototype and do testing to see if the proposed solution validates the original concept. We can then take the next step, which is building that new tool and/or new machine," Daily said.
In addition to customized equipment, the company offers a range of standard solutions, including an infrared (IR) welding machine for joining thermoplastics.
While specific European-sold Audi and BMW vehicle interiors have been assembled using contact-free IR welding technology, the first vehicles with instrument panels assembled via IR welding for the North American market will arrive in the 2012 model year.
Said Lee Hodson, the tech center's Manager and the Director of Advanced Development, "IR welding is a much greener joining process than techniques that require solvent-based adhesives."
The airtight, particle-free IR welding machine, operated via intelligent drive and control systems, enables complex 3-D contours as well as the ability to mate different material combinations.
U.S.-based customers initially evaluated IR-welded part samples at Frimo's tech center in Germany. But with the Wixom facility's grand opening in October 2010, Michigan also serves as a comprehensive equipment showplace.
Frimo's Shanghai tech center is on a fast track to put its capabilities on par with facilities in the U.S. and Germany under the guidance of Hans Scholko, who served as the company's U.S. technical director for the past 10 years.
Business has been booming in the U.S., where the company's sales volume increased 52% from 2006 through 2009, in part the result of renovating customers' existing plastics processing equipment.
"With credit hard to get during the economic downturn, many Tier 1 suppliers needed to optimize their working capital. That's why a strong part of our business the last three to four years has been tied to upgrading machines—both Frimo and competitor machines—as well as upgrading computer controls to improve manufacturing efficiency," Daily said.
Although processing plastics for vehicle interiors is Frimo's automotive application stronghold, the ever-increasing use of plastics under the hood has not gone unnoticed.
Said Hodson: "We're working on new programs for engine compartment covers with grades and textures that rival interior surfaces. Our range of products is not limited to one industry or one application, which is why the engine compartment is a possible new growth area for us."
Frimo's Wixom tech center, which includes two secured test bays, provides a framework for automakers, Tier 1s, and material suppliers to optimize production processes.
"We're trying to bring OEMs, suppliers, and material providers together in a collaborative and productive way to drive innovation and manufacturing efficiency so that we can be on the cutting edge of developing the technologies they want to sustain our business," Daily said.