BYRON CENTER — An Italian manufacturer of plastic injection molding components expects to capitalize on the growing market for lightweight composite materials as it begins production at its new North American headquarters.
INglass Group SpA chose West Michigan as the manufacturing site for its HRSflow brand of hot runner systems to tap into the region’s expanding automotive industry, said John Blundy, president of the company’s North American operations.
The supplier generates the majority of its business from the auto industry, but locating in West Michigan put the company in proximity to its appliance and medical device customers, Blundy said. INglass also sells its hot runner systems — a series of heated components that inject molten plastic into mold cavities — to the heavy truck, heavy equipment and electronics industries.
While INglass is still in the process of ramping up its West Michigan operations, Blundy remains confident the supplier will benefit from automakers’ push to take weight out of their vehicles, a process known as lightweighting.
“In my view, it will be a long way into the future before we reach a point where we’ve done everything that we can do (to take weight out of vehicles),” Blundy said. “I’d say that the development of plastic materials and the mechanical properties that these suppliers are trying to achieve are almost limitless. I don’t know where the end is.”
The market for lightweight plastic materials has been growing ever since they were introduced in the 1970s. Industry experts predict that new plastic composites will continue to pervade the industry as automakers move to meet the 54.5 miles per gallon Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards by 2025.
The average vehicle today includes approximately 350 pounds of plastic material, compared to the 85 pounds in the 1970s, said Matthew Marks, chair of the American Chemistry Council’s plastics division automotive team. Marks was among the presenters during this year’s annual Management Briefing Seminars hosted by the Center for Automotive Research.
“About 50 percent of the volume on a vehicle today is made up of plastics and composites (and) it’s only 10 percent of the vehicle mass,” Marks said during a panel discussion on lightweighting. “If we can address some of the challenges … then we’ll see even further penetration of those materials.”
Specifically, Marks laid out the need for developing new joining materials to better adhere composite plastics to aluminum, steel and carbon fiber in future multi-material vehicles. Marks also said that manufacturers of plastic components need to invest more in demonstrating new material capabilities to get those products in front of automotive engineers.
Beyond the constant innovation in materials and the heightened use of lightweight composites, the pace of new vehicle launches will also provide INglass opportunities to supply new molds, Blundy said.
Industry forecasters estimate automakers will continue with an upward trajectory of new vehicle launches, peaking at 169 launches in 2018 before shrinking to 118 launches in 2020, according to data from IHS Automotive.
“The automobile companies continue to put out new models and designs (and) that means new molds,” Blundy said. “That’s good business for us. You know you’re going to have a certain amount to satisfy the design change.”
INglass Group generated more than $100 million in annual sales last year and employs more than 885 people across its operations in Italy, China and Byron Center, Blundy said.
The Byron Center facility employs 35 workers, and the company is actively searching for an additional six employees. The company plans to hire a total of 109 workers, according to a previous MiBiz report.
INglass initially invested $17.6 million to build and equip its new building. The company received a $300,000 performance-based grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. under the Michigan Business Development Program, in addition to a $4.52 million incentive package that included local tax abatements, according to a previous MiBiz report. Grand Rapids-based Owen-Ames-Kimball Co. provided design-build services on the project.
While the global production outlook for light vehicles is forecasted to be strong through 2020, Blundy recognizes that the industry can be highly cyclical. To hedge against those fluctuations, INglass Group has set up each of its manufacturing facilities identically, down to the same equipment and design philosophies for its product segments.
“If you were to walk into the manufacturing facility in Italy or China or now in Byron Center, other than probably the color of the floor, you wouldn’t know where you were because it’s identical,” he said.
Having the identical plant layout allows the company to more efficiently scale down or shift its production resources to another facility or market if needed. Being diversified into other industrial segments also shields the company from automotive-related downturns, Blundy said.
“Assume one market is a little bit down. Well, we can supplement from one of our other manufacturing facilities,” Blundy said. “It also allows us some flexibility to rely on another facility or business for a while until we see the other one expanding.”
Since the company’s HRSflow brand of hot runner systems is new to the North American market, it plans to invest in business development and marketing to grow its customer base, said Blundy, who noted the company has not set a specific growth target for its initial year of production.
“We’re new, so we have nowhere to go but up,” Blundy said. “We certainly have the wherewithal and attitude to be one of the leaders.”