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August 1, 2003

8 Min Read
IMM's Plant Tour: Innovation keeps molder on top

A conversion to lean manufacturing principles at Blackhawk has increased organization, decreased waste, and created a stellar quality record.

If the accelerated pace at Blackhawk Automotive Plastics’ Salem facility is any indication of the current state of manufacturing in the U.S., then we can all relax. Business is booming for this Tier 1.5 (yes, a new term to be explained shortly), which specializes in highly decorated automotive interior and exterior parts. The buzz of activity and the adrenaline-charged atmosphere gave this visitor a healthy dose of optimism about the future of the molding industry. Apparently, the employees feel the same way. At every workcell, assembly area, and press, IMM found enthusiastic, focused, and energetic people.

Although the Blackhawk name is only four years old, it consists of three plants and a technical center formerly called Worthington Custom Plastics, a Tier One automotive supplier owned by Worthington Industries. Blackhawk’s CEO Cliff Croley and several investors purchased the facilities in 1999. “At the time, we considered these operations to be a diamond in the rough,” says Croley. “We’ve implemented our vision to take the company to the next level, adding value to what was already a great product.”

In May of this year, industry experts agreed with Croley by presenting the company with a 2003 Manny Award for manufacturing excellence in Northeast Ohio. The award, sponsored by Inside Business magazine, the Cleveland Area Manufacturing Program (CAMP), and accounting/adviser firm Grant Thornton, is given to companies that have produced outstanding results through innovative manufacturing techniques and products while streamlining operations.

Cusp of Several Trends
Croley likes to say that Blackhawk aims to stay on the leading edge, not the bleeding edge. “Innovation has always been a part of the culture here. We molded the first plastic grille for the 1967 Pontiac LeMans, the first TPO fascia for the 1984 Cavalier, and the first nanocomposite TPO step assist for GM vans in 2001.” This year, the company begins producing parts using a PC film (SLX from GE Plastics) and a PC/PBT resin (Xenoy from GE Plastics) in an inmold decorating process.

Blackhawk Automotive Plastics, Salem, OH

Square footage: 268,000
Annual sales: $220 million (total for all plants)
Markets served: Automotive
Customers: General Motors, Delphi, Lear, JCI, DaimlerChrysler, Honda, Navistar, Visteon, Denzo, Trim Master, TS Trim
Capital investment: $30 million for plant improvement, machinery, automation, ERP systems; $30 million to build new plant in Mississauga, ON
Parts produced: 30 million/year company wide (fully decorated and assembled)
Materials processed: ABS, PC/ABS, PP, other engineering thermoplastics
No. of employees: 510 (1750 total)
Shifts worked: Three shifts, 24/5
Molding machines: 48, 125 to 1500 tons, mostly Mitsubishis and Cincinnatis (company wide, presses range to 3500 tons)
Secondary operations: Painting, vacuum metalizing, inmold appliqué, assembly
Internal moldmaking: No
Quality: QS 9000

“It is our mandate to add value for our customers to the product itself and to our services,” says Croley. “We feel it is our duty to bring new technologies and new solutions to our customers.” As a result, the company’s manager of R&D, Mark Bennett, continues to scour the globe for state-of-the-art production technology.

In the spirit of innovation, the company has also refashioned itself from its Tier One roots to its current status as a Tier 1.5. This is an emerging class of automotive suppliers who support large Tier One integrators—the Lears, Delphis, Visteons, and JCIs of the world. Tier 1.5s must package a low cost structure with a broad array of services, such as program management, product development, design, and sequencing.

At its Tech Center in Troy, MI, Blackhawk houses several such operations—product development, program management, engineering, and design. Moldfilling analysis is considered one of the most essential elements of this service package. “Customers can’t easily go overseas and get this same package of products and services,” Croley explains.

“Integrators want full-service suppliers today,” he continues. “At the start of a program, we help customers to design parts, and then create the production, secondary operations, and assembly cells needed to make the finished assembly. At program launch, all of the details are taken care of, and the customer receives products without any glitches.”

Cost Out, Value In
That’s not just talk; Blackhawk’s quality record is stellar. Company wide, it is currently at a scrap rate of 50 ppm or less, a world-class quality level. This is one of the many benefits of a conversion to lean manufacturing that has freed up nearly 80,000 sq ft of space at each of the three plants.

In fact, lean manufacturing principles are at the core of Blackhawk’s operations, which are based on Toyota’s production system. A separate VP of lean manufacturing, Jeff Kane, is charged with scrutinizing Blackhawk’s processes and determining how they can be made better and more cost effective.

According to Croley, the lean conversion is not just a surface effort. “These principles must be baked into the culture, and we are well on our way to that goal. In addition to a kanban system and visual organization tools, we are also eliminating waste in the areas of floor space, scrap, and operations.” The plant’s work-in-process, or WIP, area is a study in organization. Kanban cards are used to start and monitor production, and a board that Blackhawk created tracks the progress of each program with triangular information cards that inform operators of each production metric.

“Our approach to lowering cost comes in three flavors,” he says. “First, to know costs well, we implemented an ERP system. Secondly, we are incorporating lean principles from a process standpoint. And finally, we are aggressively reducing material costs.” This third leg of the cost reduction strategy involves purchasing director Bill Parkinson, who forages the supply base for lower costs.

Beehive of Activity
It must be mentioned again, even at the risk of redundancy, that the shop floor at this plant is buzzing with energy and productivity. Salem is Blackhawk’s Center of Excellence for inmold appliqué, the company’s term for what is also known as inmold decoration (IMD). It involves thermoforming a decorative film to the shape of the final part, registering the film in the mold, and then backfilling with a rigid plastic substrate such as PC/ABS, ABS, or PP.

“We are the only ones in the business that we know of who have all of the elements of IMD production in-house,” says Croley. “We’ve invested in a Kiefel high-speed vacuum forming system to shape the films, along with an RPT twin robotic laser cutter to cut them to shape. None of the steps in the process is farmed out.”

Salem’s main molding area houses most presses in the interior of the shop floor, with secondary operations such as painting and assembly located around the perimeter. This system is flexible enough so that in some cases, workcells are arranged to combine molding and assembly with a paint conveyor. The plant contains multiple interior and exterior paint lines.

Also on the perimeter of the plant are several large conference rooms. A tenet of the lean production system is good communication with all employees, so regular employee meetings here are a given. All employees receive a profit bonus as well, so profit and production measurements are posted within the plant on three gargantuan boards near the cafeteria. The average employee tenure is 18 years, and in one case at least, there are three generations of the same family working at this facility.

Challenging Parts, Beautiful Results
Although a few proprietary applications were off-limits during IMM’s visit, there were a significant number of projects that showcased Blackhawk’s talents. From low-pressure inmold lamination and laser trimming to dual appliqué molding and coinjection, the variety gives credence to the plant’s reputation as the largest automotive IMD facility around the globe.

This broad range of production capabilities is what Blackhawk considers to be its greatest strength. “We have been designing and producing instrument panels, consoles, and air outlets for more than 25 years,” Croley says. One of the company’s air outlet designs, a black box designed “venetian-blind” style, is used in the current GMX210/230 I/P platform.

What makes these challenging applications work is a full-service approach to the molding process. “When our customers give us their engineering prints, we put their ideas through our engineering and design systems and get their feedback every step of the way. And when the machines are turned on, we’re monitoring our processes and testing products every step of the way.”

A brilliant example of this philosophy is found in two workcells devoted to producing the instrument panel bezel for the Chevrolet Impala. This part, nearly 6 ft long, also contains incredibly deep draws and an exacting IMD requirement. There are two versions—one takes a patterned film that looks like woven carbon fiber; the other a woodgrain appliqué.

After the IP bezel is molded, a Yushin robot cuts the gate and places it on a conveyor belt. Operators hang the bezels on a paint line, where they travel through painting to the assembly area via conveyor.

In the assembly area, air outlets molded separately are attached, along with clips and a hazard switch. Switches are kept in a small tabletop controlled-environment box until installed to eliminate static discharges.

A separate section of the plant is devoted to automotive grilles for the Chevy Venture and GM midsize vans. Work here consists of molding, masking off, and applying resist paint to areas that will not be chromed. After parts are sent out for chroming, they return to be finished with exterior paint on an automated conveyor line. Workers then assemble the emblem, metal struts, brackets, and seals required to make a finished grille assembly.

Contact information
Blackhawk Automotive Plastics
Salem, OH
Clifford Croley
(330) 332-6399

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