Plastic Omnium in Slovakia: Talk quality, not labor cost

Slovakia is rapidly taking the lead among Central and Eastern European (CEE) states in the automotive industry. Prominent automotive parts molder Plastic Omnium says its plant there is as good as they get.

"The [automotive] market here is growing very rapidly," insists Marc Siracusa, sales engineer at French molder Roussel Partners, which already has a 25-press operation in Myjava, Slovakia. Three of the machines process multimaterial parts, he says, and clamp forces range from 15-350 tonnes. In the neighboring Czech Republic, the CEE leader in automotive parts production, the industry accounts for about 15% of the country''s manufacturing (on a cost basis). But officials at Czech Trade, a governmental unit to support domestic businesses, predict Slovakia could take the pole position by 2008.

Automotive in Bratislava, Slovakia''s capital city, means Volkswagen. Rushing along Highway E65 west of the city are legions of trucks labeled "Delivering just in time for Volkswagen." Not far from the massive VW facility, which looks like a mid-sized, futuristic covered city, is a supplier park owned by VW with space rented to a handful of suppliers, among them Johnson Controls. About 5 minutes further along the road is a grain field with two large facilities, one owned by injection molder Plastic Omnium and the other by Synergy, Plastic Omnium''s 50/50 joint venture with thermoplastics supplier Solvay, for production of fuel tanks and systems.

Sébastien Castagné, the Slovak-speaking Frenchman who serves as Plastic Omnium''s purchasing coordinator for Central Europe (which for the molder includes Germany and Belgium), says the site in Lozorno, Slovakia resembles any other Plastic Omnium facility in the world, just bigger and, he claims, better. "This plant is our most demanding in terms of quality assurance," he says, even compared with the company''s facility supplying luxury carmaker Jaguar. He traces the extreme quality standards to VW''s own internal competition among its facilities for quality leadership, and the OEM''s insistence on extremely top-line quality for its Touareg luxury cars.

The Plastic Omnium site in Lozorno molds, paints, and assembles bumpers and front end modules for the VW Touareg, the VW Polo, and for Porsche''s Cayenne sport utility vehicle. Castagné says the facility in Lozorno molds about 120,000 bumpers/yr for the VW Polo, with a takt time of 2.05 min. and a reaction time (time from order to delivery at VW, 20 km distant) of 240 min. for front bumpers and 360 min. for rear bumpers. About 85,000 front and rear bumper systems/yr are molded for the VW Touareg, with a takt time of 2.5 min. and reaction time of 287 min. The Touareg bumpers have about 70 components, he says, accounting for the longer reaction time.

The molder also supplies Porsche with about 42,000 bumper sets/yr for its Cayenne from the site, and about 130,000 front end modules/yr for the Touareg and Cayenne together. No further details on those programs are given. Castagné says the facility has about 9000 different reference options. "Assembly can take from 5 min. to 1 hour," he says, depending on the option. The just-in-time demands of VW are obvious to a visitor in the frenetic forklift activity at the facility, and in the focus on maintenance, according to Castagne: "When one machine is dead, then we are dead." When problems occur they usually are linked to the paint line, he says; if painting is stopped, molding machines also are halted.

Low cost and high quality: not an oxymoron

"Don''t come to Slovakia thinking they are making low-cost, low-quality products here. It may be lower cost, but very high quality," insists Castagné. About 10 of the firm''s 50-odd subsuppliers are domestic plastics or metals processors, though these supply mostly parts; systems come from established international suppliers. The facility houses eight Engel injection molding machines sized 1100-3200 tonnes clamp force, processing polypropylene, long-glass-fiber-reinforced PP (Sabic''s Stamax and Ticona''s Celstran on the day MPW visited), and GE Advanced Materials'' Xenoy PC/PBT compounds. Plastic Omnium sources its molds from German and French moldmakers because domestic moldmakers cannot yet make such complex molds, he says.

The plant includes a fully double-sided automated paint line with 18 robots, capable of painting up to 50 skids/hr, and follow-on assembly to include multiple welding processes and robot-applied adhesives. The 450 employees, almost all young Slovaks, are split between three shifts. In comparison, Plastic Omnium''s German facility molding bumpers for GM Opel only has about 130 employees. "VW bumpers are more complex," says Castagné.

VW is not the only carmaker hearing Slovakia''s siren song. Others in or entering Slovakia include Korean carmaker Kia, French concern PSA, Ford (with a plant for motors) and most of the major Tier One and, in many cases, Tier Two suppliers. Audi has a plant for motors and its TT coupe in Hungary at a site about 70 km from Bratislava.

Matthew Defosse

Sebastian Castagne, purchasing manager at Plastic Omnium, says the firm''s bumper and front end module molding facility just outside Bratislava is its global quality leader. The firm allows no photos of its plant interior; suffice to say it is clean, busy and modern.

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