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Just-in-time dedicated seat plants fall out of favor

Just-in-time dedicated seat plants fall out of favor


Automotive News | August 3, 2010 – 12:01 am EST


TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — It’s an idea whose time came, and went: the factory dedicated to supplying seats to one assembly plant on a just-in-time basis.

"When it came to JIT, it used to be one program, one customer," Byron Foster, vice president of North American operations for Johnson Controls Inc.’s Automotive Experience group, said here Monday during the CAR Management Briefing Seminars.

But, he said, "There are fewer and fewer examples" of single-product seat plants.

"We’ve had to rethink how we think about (our) manufacturing footprint and how to come up with different solutions."

For example, a Johnson Controls plant in Lerma, Mexico, produces seats for the Dodge Journey, Ford Fiesta and Chrysler PT Cruiser, all on the same assembly line.

To do that, Johnson Controls designed robots that can assemble different seats, plus a one-size-fits-all pallet to take the seat down the line.

Standardized seat parts

Johnson Controls currently designs standard seat components that can be used for a variety of customers. Automakers use those components, says Foster, because it allows Johnson Controls to cut its prices.

Recently, Daimler AG and BMW AG pushed that trend to its logical conclusion when they announced plans to design a common seat frame. Foster says he doesn’t expect all automakers to adopt a common seat frame. But the industry is inching in that direction.

To achieve economies of scale, companies are developing common seat frames that can be used for their entire model lineups. "We’re seeing this from all our customers," Foster said. "The idea that you would design a new seat from scratch – that’s history."

Seats are a complicated final part to make, with each one requiring anywhere from 300 to 3,000 individual parts including structural plastics, plastic trim and urethane foam, Foster said.

At a typical just-in-time seating assembly plant, Johnson Controls receives an order from an automaker for a specific color and trim style of seat for a specific vehicle scheduled to be built that day, and builds a complete set of seats ready for delivery within an hour.

Further demands

Now automakers are adding further demands due to changes on their own assembly lines.

Ford Motor Co., for instance, is producing a variety of sub-compact and compact cars in a plant that used to just make large SUVs.

To trim waste in its production costs, BMW will have 82 percent of the parts for its future X3 crossover vehicle, made in Spartanburg, S.C., delivered just in time, with no more than a two-hour inventory of parts on hand at any given time, said Richard Morris, vice president assembly at the plant.

That requires greater coordination between BMW and its partners.

The seat supplier is responding to changes in the industry like those at Ford and BMW through a combination of solutions, Foster said.

In some cases where the company must be on site, Johnson Controls is looking to supply other parts, such as injection molded interior trim as well as seats to better utilize its capital expenditure.

Other plants may be designed as a regional just-in-time production plant, which will deliver seats to multiple automakers, he said.

The changes at automakers, Foster said, "drives a lot of discussion through the supply chain about how to respond."

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