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June 1, 1997

8 Min Read
Door-to-fascia dominion

Picture a plant that produces 100,000 assembled parts for 32 different automotive customers, then ships those subassemblies just in time. Factor in an additional requirement - known as in-line vehicle sequencing - which requires that parts come off the pallet in the same order as cars are sequenced on the customer's assembly line. Now envision shipping this quantity every day. Finally, add some of the highest quality standards imaginable to the mix. You're not dreaming - this is a typical day at Ford Automotive Products Operations' Utica Plant (APO Utica), a powerhouse in fascias and door trim panels. Ford APO ranks as the second largest automotive components manufacturer in the world. And don't be fooled by the Ford name: APO Utica not only competes with outside suppliers for Ford jobs, it recently opened its doors to "non-Ford" OEM and Tier One customers.

In case you're unfamiliar with the radical changes taking place among the Big Three, here's a short synopsis: Moving toward deintegration, today's automotive OEM has pared down its supply base while simultaneously demanding complete, bolt-on assemblies as well as design, testing, and warranty responsibility from those vendors who remain. Despite rumors to the contrary, in general, car makers confirm that they are no longer interested in piece-part manufacture. Instead, they want to become assemblers. As a result, Tier One and Two suppliers have consolidated into "systems integrators" capable of satisfying the demand. As part of this trend, APO Utica, while owned by Ford, operates as a massive Tier One with its own balance sheet.

How does such a gargantuan enterprise meet not only daily goals but also plan for the future? During our visit, it became apparent that Ford is betting heavily on both advanced technology and the power of Utica's workforce. The plant boasts nearly 3000 employees who participate in about 50 separate cross-functional teams aimed at higher productivity, more efficient plant maintenance, excellence in manufacturing, and innovative R&D.

The last time IMM visited Ford Utica, we toured the "Energy Island" (March 1996 IMM, p. 86), a centrally chilled, closed loop cooling system for LPM (low-pressure molding) presses. This second trip, conducted via golf-cart shuttle to cover the half-mile distances between different plant areas, takes in three major operations - fascia molding and assembly, a development area for the Advanced Manufacturing Engineering group, and LPM door trim panel production.

Door Panel Genius

Largest of Utica's four areas, the interior door trim panel operation (a.k.a. Area C) supplies panels for 75 percent of the Ford vehicles made for the North American market and 17 percent of all North American vehicles. That adds up to roughly 35,000 panels daily. In addition, this facility is the world's largest producer of LPM door panels, according to plant manager Don Vonk. Utica also offers every technology currently available in North America and Western Europe for door trim manufacture, including vacuum forming and low-pressure woodstock forming.

Eight JSW vertical presses currently mold Taurus/Sable door trim panels using the LPM method, essentially an injection-compression process. In one shot, polypropylene is backmolded onto a vinyl skin/olefin foam laminate, eliminating the need for secondary adhesive bonding (March 1997 IMM, p. 50). The foam is a custom material developed by supplier Toray Plastics (America) Inc.; process technology was licensed from Kasei Kogyo Co. Ltd. in Japan.

Utica commissioned two Williams-White LPM vertical presses (1325 tons) a year ago to mold front and rear door trim panels for the UN93. That's Ford lingo for the Expedition, arguably the hottest sport-utility on the market. These were the first LPM presses to be built in the United States, according to Greg Green, LPM manufacturing supervisor.

Clever process engineering and tool designs keep cycle times for the two-cavity molds to well under 2 minutes. Two foam/skin sheets are picked up and fed to the top mold half using an indexing gantry robot, then secured onto pins. At the same time, this same robot lifts completed panels out of the bottom half of the mold. During injection under low pressure, sequential valve gates release high-flow (40 MFI) polypropylene into the mold, while core and cavity remain a slight distance apart; mold halves then close completely to "squeeze" the resin into all areas of the tool. Pinch-offs trim the vinyl at the same time. At a base cost of $500,000, each tool molds a set of panels - both right and left sides - in one shot.

Another portion of the plant is devoted to taillamp molding, painting, and assembly, with annual output around 1 million parts. (Stay tuned for more details on this operation in an upcoming IMM issue.)

R&D on the Shop Floor

Utica plans to capitalize on its door panel molding expertise by driving the technology toward thinner walls, molded-in-color panels, and innovative skin materials. Joe Bonafiglia of Advanced Manufacturing Engineering (AME) works on future programs such as these in the AME development center, an area of the plant dedicated to developing new LPM applications. Here, a production-capable development press (1200 tons) manufactured entirely in North America includes a Williams-White clamp with an injection unit from Engel. Utica's AME group uses the press to conduct mold trials for production parts, to train employees, and to test advances in LPM technology.

One twist, for example, involves adapting the LPM method to horizontal molding machines. Skin-and-foam sheets would be fed by robotic gripper between mold halves prior to the injection phase, with the possibility for roll-fed operation in a future incarnation.

Another LPM project under way would replace the current vinyl skin with a thinner cover skin without foam, for lower cost and better definition on sharp contours. AME is currently working on this option for SW164, the Probe replacement coming out under the Cougar name for 1998. Bonafiglia points to a prototype, explaining benefits such as aesthetic appeal and thinner door substrates for cost reduction. Thin-wall substrates, 2.0 to 2.2 mm, take roughly 20 to 30 percent of the weight out of these developmental panels and reduce molding cycle time. A higher-flow PP was developed to meet thin-wall requirements.

For two-tone doors, such as those found on Econoline vans, AME's Aashir Patel is working on a hybrid panel molded in one shot, resulting in a molded-in-color bottom half with a vinyl-covered top. Utica is also working concurrently on materials for molded-in-color panels, aiming for better scratch resistance than current talc-filled PP.

For the Escort replacement, the CW170, Utica has developed an in-mold embossing technique. "Currently," says AME engineer Aashir Patel, "we can laser-etch any electronic image onto vinyl skin covers. These same patterns will be cut into inserts for door panel molding, so that vinyl skins can be embossed as the panel is molded." Patel and others are also working on TPO to achieve a completely recyclable olefin-based door panel.

Fascia to Fascia

Welcome to the land of the giants - 4000-ton Ube giants, to be exact. Joe Bell, fascia manufacturing supervisor, explains that this building, known as Area A, is part of a current expansion. "Utica is now in the process of converting its RIM fascia manufacturing completely to recyclable TPO for cost reduction, better molding efficiency, and paintability," says Bell. When the dust settles next year, the plant will contain 10 mammoth presses to supply 1.3 million fascias annually.

In addition to molding front and rear fascias for most of Ford's luxury vehicles, Area D also supplies parts for Taurus/Sable, Navigator, Explorer, and Mustang platforms. "Working together internally with AME has allowed us to reduce wall thicknesses and improve cycle times via sequential valve gating," Bell notes. The Taurus wraparound front fascia, for example, is a geometrically complex, 10-lb part, yet it's molded in a mere 108 seconds. Mold changes now require only 30 minutes with two employees, thanks to a quick-change system developed in-house.

AME's Gerry Dominick chose to announce a new technical development for fascias during this part of the tour. "Another example of shared internal technology will be debuting shortly. We are introducing conductive TPO resin for fascias, a filled material that significantly improves electrostatic paint transfer efficiency, resulting in reduced paint costs and improved quality." Utica developed the material using a low-cost additive. The secret, according to Dominick, is in the blending. Resin supplier D&S Plastics will compound the material for Utica, then make it available to other molders late this year. In return, APO will receive a small royalty on resin sales.

Ford Utica, Utica, MI

Square footage:


Markets served:


Annual sales volume:

$700 million


$230 million annually

Parts molded:

Door trim panels, bumper fascias, headliners, rear lamps, package trays, instrument panels (future program), small parts

Materials processed:

PC, acrylic, TPO, ABS, PP, woodstock, urethane foam, fiberglass

No. of employees:

2827 total - 346 salaried, 2481 hourly

Shifts worked:

Three 8-hour shifts, six days a week

Molding machines:

Six 4000-ton Ubes; eight 1200-ton JSW low-pressure presses; two 1325-ton Williams-White low-pressure presses; 11 additional molding machines ranging from 650 to 1000 tons

Secondary operations:

Electrostatic painting, adhesive laminating, vibration welding, pressure bonding, heat staking, ultrasonic welding, waterjet cutting, assembly

Internal moldmaking:



ISO 9000, Q1 (certified on all components)

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