A 155-acre lot in the Chicago area, vacant for 40 years, will be converted into the site of the first automotive "supplier park" in the U.S.

A 155-acre lot in the Chicago area, vacant for 40 years, will be converted into the site of the first automotive "supplier park" in the U.S. This concept, which has been applied by Ford and General Motors in Europe and South America, will see its domestic debut next year under the auspices of Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, Mich. Suppliers to Ford are being invited to establish new manufacturing facilities at a single site one-half mile from Ford's Chicago assembly plant. Six buildings are planned for the site, occupying a total of 1.5 million sq ft. The "park" concept presumes that having numerous suppliers dedicate manufacturing capacity to a single customer at a site close to that customer would offer the ultimate in "just-in-time" manufacturing efficiency. The result should be lower shipping and inventory costs as well as greater flexibility to respond to changes in Ford's assembly schedule. The Chicago assembly plant itself is being upgraded with an electric monorail system and flexible tooling that allows for rapid changeovers—"even from a small car to an SUV," says Roman Krygier, Ford's group v.p. for manufacturing and quality.

To date, nine companies have signed up for space at Ford's Supplier Manufacturing Campus. Three plastics part makers are among them: Visteon Corp. of Dearborn will produce front-end integrated assemblies, dashboard/cockpit systems with climate control, and fuel storage systems. Plastech Engineered Products Inc., also of Dearborn, will injection and blow mold parts. (The company specializes in interior trim, cockpit modules, and wiring harnesses.) Summit Polymers Inc. of Kalamazoo, Mich., will injection mold consoles.

Suppliers at the park will be making parts and modules for two brand-new vehicles, the CrossTrainer, a sedan/SUV hybrid, and the Ford Five Hundred, a new sedan. More than half of the assembly plant's purchases will come from the supplier campus. "Establishing a plant in the park does not take any business away from our other plants," says Greg Gardner, manager of corporate public affairs for Visteon.

 

Benefits of campus living

In addition to leasing the real estate from Ford, each supplier on campus is responsible for installing its equipment, staffing the plant, and day-to-day operations. Dedicating a whole new plant to one customer may seem an extreme step to a molder accustomed to scheduling jobs from various companies. However, the cost savings and manufacturing efficiencies are expected make the opportunity worthwhile. "It is a steady source of contracted work, so we can sequence our production in a way that matches up with Ford's plan of assembling the vehicle," says Visteon's Gardner. In addition, suppliers making subassemblies have an opportunity to integrate part production schedules with other companies on the campus.

JIT operations help suppliers like Visteon keep raw-material and finished-product inventories to a minimum and also to respond faster when Ford has a change in plans. Making a sudden shift in production is more difficult to accomplish in a typical custom molding shop, where multiple jobs from different customers compete for time on a machine.

Even in this electronic age, physical proximity is expected to be an advantage in alerting suppliers to any sudden and drastic change in production plans, such as happened in the current economic slowdown, when parts orders were cancelled and suppliers such as Visteon got stuck with excess materials on the shop floor.