Ford’s new compact MPV’s architecture is unique and required a high-quality cockpit solution. Simon Duval Smith travelled to Romania for the launch of an exciting new moulding process at supplier IAC

The B-Max features 1.5 metres of unobstructed access to the cabin, its central body pillar uniquely integrated into the hinged front doors and sliding rear doors so that, put simply, there is no B-pillar. Such a configuration draws extra attention to interior fit and finish, posing a considerable quality challenge if a major OEM like Ford is to make this unique vehicle stand out in a very price-sensitive segment. 

The instrument panel (IP) is the most viewed component in a car and its appearance has progressed a great deal in the last 10 years; scratchy hard plastics have given way to rubber-like skins. The appearance of deep-section soft surfaces has been achieved with slush-moulding and other techniques but International Automotive Components (IAC) Group has pioneered a faster and cleaner way of ‘wrapping’ a fine PVC or TPU layer over a foam and composite substrate, using less energy in a safer process – namely, FastKast.

FastKast industry first

The FastKast process is an industry first; a proprietary slush moulding technology which allows PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) materials in powder form to be moulded into skins for IPs, doors and other interior trim components through a unique process. Compared to traditional production processes, FastKast enables energy, cost and weight savings while significantly improving the quality of the skin. The process also allows for reduced CO2 emissions over traditional slush-moulding methods, as cycle time is much shorter and less energy is required per component.

Working conditions for operators are improved too, as heat exposure is reduced and product handling is made easier by the proprietary tool.

“FastKast provides the unique ability to create an even and consistent skin, at just 1mm thickness and in cycles of only a few minutes. The innovative manufacturing process allows us to support our customers in their lightweight design strategies with economically viable solutions,” says Rien Segers, senior vice-president Engineering and Development at IAC Group in Europe. FastKast has been developed and engineered internally by IAC. The new Romania plant is the first to introduce the process and it will soon be launched at other locations in Europe and Asia to support new customer programmes with the aim of adopting it globally.

Opening an interior centre

In October 2012, IAC invited AMS to the opening of its Bals facility, the company’s 27th in Europe and its first in Romania. The plant currently employs 250 people producing automotive interiors. In July 2012, the plant began production to support Ford’s assembly facility in Craiova, 25km away. The facility produces IPs, centre consoles, rear doors, front door panels and headliners for the B-Max. To operate its manufacturing technologies, the Bals plant has attracted a very talented and skilled workforce as plant manager, Darryl Roadnight attests: “We are very pleased with the skills and the attitude of IAC Bals employees.” This is echoed by Maurits Willaert, vice-president of manufacturing strategy, Europe: “I have been very impressed with the quality of the associates [line operators and engineers] that we have recruited here. While we are a small distance from Craiova, we actually have our own labour pool. For example, the engineers who showed visitors the processes here today, all speak English. This skill has allowed our development team to carry out training of engineers and operators very quickly.”

“The Bals plant underlines IAC’s commitment to deliver complex vehicle interiors solutions to our global customers that are in line with their strategies for geographic expansion and global platform manufacturing.

This investment represents a key milestone for the Group’s strategy of profitable growth in the European region,” says James Kamsickas, IAC group president and CEO. “We are proud to support Ford’s launch of the new B-MAX,” says Jonas Nilsson, senior vice-president of IAC operations in Europe. “This new facility also strategically positions IAC to support other automotive customers in the region.”

In support of Ford, the IAC plant was designed and prepared for production in approximately 12 months, and has quickly become an industry benchmark, delivering excellent manufacturing quality, flexibility and service. By design, the 15,000-square-metre facility also has incremental floor space capacity to support future manufacturing activities.

In addition to its state-of-the-art manufacturing capabilities and skilled workforce, as part of its commitment to the region, IAC is working with the nearby Technical School of Slatina to provide training courses for future employees at the Bals facility.

AMS talked to

CEO James Kamsickas (JK) and IAC V-P manufacturing strategy Europe Maurits Willaert about the company’s structure and its future

AMS: Can you tell us about the IAC structure and your view of the interior business today?

JK: We typically buy ‘distressed’ companies and turn them around. We have acquired 15 companies around the globe. [With regard to] interior supplier companies, IAC did business transfers from some 30 firms in North America alone. There has been a lot less consolidation in Europe... this is a challenge the supply base and OEMs have to look at. We are the largest supplier with interiors as the core business. We have some big competitors but none of them have interiors as their number one business unit. So when we look at a technology like Fast- Kast, for us the cost of the process will be amortised more quickly than for our competitors. And remember, we developed this technology, at some expense, during the tough times of the last few years. But the products that we can produce with FastKast are of gamechanging quality and appeal to the customer. Our core business is in resin-based products, we don’t try to have a core substrates business, or support structures.

SDS: What about expanding into other areas of interiors products?

JK: We never say ‘never’ but for the foreseeable future, we will concentrate on resin-based products. This is what our customers want from us at present. Distraction in the interior business can result in disaster.

SDS: Here in Bals, your incoming supply chain must be quite long; without help from the local government etc, would you have come?

MW: Interior components and systems are large, comparatively low item-value pieces. So, very quickly, one runs up high logistics costs therefore local presence makes good sense. The costs of shipping parts to Craiova, even from our plant in Slovakia, are the deciding factor in locating a manufacturing facility here, even without the great help we have received from local government here. Also, the infrastructure of roads here is not as developed as one would like. And of course the labour cost is lower than in our other operating areas.

SDS: Can you give a fi gure on labour costs here versus, say, Germany?

MW: I can’t go into fi gures but labour here is approximately 30% lower than in Western Europe.

SDS: Are you trying to buy manufacturing equipment locally, or using your ‘traditional’ sources?

MW: We will try to source locally. The plant launch comes fi rst; we want to stay at the top of our game from the beginning.

SDS: A lot of OEM and supplier manufacturing managers complain that they have to spend around 4% on top of the cost of buying equipment, to keep a spare parts store for machinery. What’s your take on this?

MW: We have nearly 300 injection moulding machines in all of our European operations, which means we keep a lot of spares. We have to manage this inventory ourselves. I would love to have all the machinery suppliers nearby but due to the location this is not viable, for them.

JK: We deal with this challenge at many of our locations around the world as we are often located in fairly out of the way places, like Pune in India and Shenyang in China.

SDS: And to the future, where are you looking to open facilities?

JK: I can tell you that we are starting up operations in Malaysia, for Subaru; and in Thailand, for Nissan; we are generally continuing our policy of following customers around the world.