Carmakers may switch to plug-in components

In most automobile factories, more than 100 parts are put together to make a car door. Traditionally, those parts - locks and latches, guides and glass - are pieced together one part at a time along an assembly line. Now, two of the nation's leading automotive suppliers have formed an unusual joint venture - one that could make significant changes in the way doors and many other components of a car are made.

The Budd Company and ITT Automotive have joined forces to manufacture fully assembled car doors. If they can convince one of the domestic carmakers to accept the idea, the suppliers would ship their ``modular'' doors to an auto plant, where they would be painted and then mated with the rest of the car body by the turn of just a few bolts.

``The benefit of this modular system is the ability to give the car companies a reduced price and a reduced inventory,'' says Charles L. Peters, president of the Mechanical Systems & Components Group at ITT Automotive.

For one thing, he says, it means less nuts-and-bolts inventory in the assembly plant. Second, parts suppliers typically pay wages lower than those at the factories run by the automakers. And since many of the assembly steps can be eliminated along the line, fewer workers are needed.

Mr. Peters notes that another modular package designed by ITT will incorporate such components as the rear taillights and license plate housing on some 1989 Chrysler models: ``We came up with a single item that replaced 24 major components in that area, and all of this was designed so that a robot could pick this modular assembly up [and] snap it into place,'' replacing as many as 10 assembly line jobs.

Modular assembly has become one of the newest buzzwords in the auto industry. Despite the promises being made, however, there are some skeptics.

Glen Gardner, chairman of Diamond-Star Motors, says he questions whether doors assembled at a supplier plant can be guaranteed to meet fit-and-finish standards, once mated with the rest of the body. But Mr. Gardner, who heads the Illinois-based assembly joint venture between Chrysler and Mitsubishi Motors, thinks there are other areas of the vehicle more suited for modular assembly.

A recent study by the consulting and research firm Arthur Andersen & Co. found that most automotive insiders expect to see the industry turn to pre-assembled, or modular, instrument panels by the early 1990s, for example.

``Modular construction is being mandated by the carmakers,'' says David Cole, head of the University of Michigan's Center for the Study of Automotive Transportation. ``They say their primary business is building power trains and basic bodies. And the assembly of systems like seats or radiator sub-assemblies will be [turned over] to suppliers.''

The Big Three have already begun using some modular components, but the most dramatic changeover is not likely to occur until the early 1990s, when new products, specifically designed for modular assembly, come on line.

``The concept of modularization is critical'' to General Motors Corporation's Saturn project, notes Saturn president Richard G. (Skip) LeFauve. Saturn is the $5 billion small-car-of-the-future program that is scheduled to debut in 1990. The use of plug-in components, Mr. LeFauve says, will be one reason that Saturn's Spring Hill, Tenn., factory is expected to be able to match the productivity, quality, and production costs of GM's Japanese rivals.

As a result of modularization, carmakers are beginning to draw their key suppliers into the initial product design process. The Ford Motor Company, for example, has turned over engineering responsibility for certain critical door component subassemblies to the Canadian-based Magna International.

Roughly 10 percent of the components built by Magna, one of North America's fastest-growing auto parts suppliers, is modular, says planning director Stephen Rodgers, adding that ``it is not unreasonable to say we'll have 25 percent'' of the company's modular component business by 1990.

The change to modular construction techniques is also expected to lead to a ``tiering'' of suppliers. First-tier suppliers will provide key components and assemble the modules, while additional parts will come from second-, third-, and fourth-tier producers.

In the case of the ITT-Budd joint venture, second-tier suppliers will provide such materials as the fabrics used to finish the inside of the car doors.

The switch to modular assembly is not going entirely unopposed. Some leaders of the United Automobile Workers Union are worried about the potential loss of jobs along the assembly line.

And even some suppliers are concerned. For the Big Three, however, one benefit of modularization will be a reduction in suppliers.

``We have far too many suppliers,'' stresses Richard Dauch, head of manufacturing at the Chrysler Corporation. ``We have reduced our production material suppliers from about 2,700 to about 2,300 today, and we would like to get that down to about 1,000 by 1990.''

Not all the suppliers cut off by Chrysler will go out of business. Many will instead become second- or third-tier manufacturers.

But quite a few are expected to be left out of the bidding.

There is even some concern within the Big Three, where critics fear they may be turning over too much of their design duties - and expertise - to outsiders. In the past, many manufacturers measured their strength in their ability to design a car from top to bottom, but proponents of modular design say that approach is no longer justified, if for nothing else, because of the cost.

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