Anyone who has been a supplier to the automotive industry knows that it can be a trying experience. OEMs are continually requesting that suppliers manufacture components and systems for lower and lower prices. On top of the low price demands, automotive OEMs require an extremely high level of quality as well.
OEM quality standards concerning a truck's finish are some of the most stringent, since the finish is what first catches the customer's eye. While the standards are high, Meridian Automotive Systems (Ionia, MI) has had no trouble meeting them.
The company's Ionia paint facility coats steel bumpers and hitch plates for a variety of Ford and Mazda trucks. After the parts are thoroughly cleaned and phosphated, Meridian electrocoats, primes and topcoats the bumpers.
The plant is operating about 19 hr/day in two shifts. About 70% of the work is bumpers that receive a color topcoat, 10% is bumpers that are coated with a UV-stable G-gloss only, and the remaining 20% is hitch plates that are only electrocoated.
Since opening in April 2000, the plant has not sent out a single electrocoat-only part with a defect. Plant manager Kevin Grummet attributes Meridian's successful launch to a good electrocoat, a few unique touches to the finishing line and a strong partnership with its paint supplier.
A Good Product
You can't produce a high-quality finish without a good coating. According to Mr. Grummet, the electrocoating Meridian is using is a "good product" and one of the main reasons for the plant's superb quality rating.
Meridian is using a CorMax(r) electrocoating from DuPont Performance Coatings. The e-coat is lead and HAPs free with a low-VOC content. It provides the bumpers and hitch plates with good corrosion and edge protection.
Before coming to Meridian, Mr. Grummet worked for a job shop that applied electrocoatings for automotive parts. "This e-coat is more user friendly than ones I had used previously," stated Mr. Grummet. "With the product I was used to using, you had to add certain chemicals to make it flow well. This product has these chemicals already blended into it. There isn't much we have to do to the e-coat coming off the tanker.
"The day-to-day testing of the product is easier. And, because the curing capabilities aren't nearly as high as previous electrocoats I've used, we can bake parts at a lower temperature. All these things make our line go a little faster."
A Unique Approach
Another reason for Meridian's high quality rating is its unique approach to coating bumpers. "I think we were under the microscope. A lot of people were doing things that were different," said Mr. Grummet.
The most noticeable difference at the Ionia facility is that it electrocoats bumpers in car position, which means bumpers are racked just as they would be seen on the truck at the dealer. "The majority of automotive plants will hang bumpers vertically, most likely so they can get more pieces on a rack. We're doing just as many pieces, but with bumpers in car position, the quality is better. When my inspectors see it, they're actually looking at the bumper the way the customer looks at it," explained Mr. Grummet. "I think all of that has helped our quality rating. Also, by running in car position we know what problem areas to target."
This is especially important when a metallic topcoat is applied to the bumpers. Metallic paints contain a mica that lays in a particular direction, giving the bumper the metallic look. With the bumpers in car position, inspectors view the mica flakes just as the buyer would, reducing the possibility of a defective bumper passing inspection.
Running the bumpers in car position throughout the coating process facilitates the company's thorough inspection of each and every bumper coated, which is another unique approach that has kept Meridian's quality rating high. "We probably inspect more aggressively than most other facilities. We have an inspection station after e-coat, after prime and after topcoat. So, we can see the same part three times to make sure it is defect free. If there is a problem, we can identify it before completing a 2,000 piece run, which saves us a lot of parts."
One last distinctive approach at Meridian that has allowed the facility to have such a high quality rating is the conveyor system. Because electrocoating requires that parts be dipped, Meridian uses an overhead conveyor. But after the parts are cured, the rack is released from the overhead conveyor and placed on a floor-mounted conveyor. This is done so that when the rack is sent through the spray booths it will not sway. Because the rack is stationary on the floor-mounted conveyor, it stays in the correct position for the robots to spray it, reducing paint defects.
A Strong Partnership
While the quality of the electrocoating (and Meridian's other coatings as well) and the company's unique approach to finishing bumpers have greatly contributed to its high quality rating, neither would have been possible without a strong partnership between the Meridian Ionia plant and DuPont. In fact, Mr. Grummet believes this strong partnership is the most significant reason for the plant's success.
One key to this relationship is the level of service provided by the paint supplier. "One of the big things we were sold on was service," said Mr. Grummet. "I have an on-site e-coat technician and an on-site topcoat account manager from DuPont. These two individuals are on-site every day of production. This was one of our key items starting a new plant from the ground up. We wanted experienced people to help us start up and meet our long-term goals."
The emphasis on service and the fact that Meridian has only one paint supplier for the Ionia facility has created an atmosphere of cooperation and teamwork. That atmosphere has resulted in Meridian putting into practice many preventive measures and a philosophy of continuous improvement, both of which have contributed to the plant's high level of quality. "The teamwork and cooperation make you have a little more accountability than when you have more than one paint supplier. It makes them want to get it right," stated Mr. Grummet. Not only is there a great deal of teamwork between Meridian and its paint supplier, but there is excellent teamwork between management and hourly employees at Meridian as well.
While being an automotive supplier can be a difficult job, the Meridian Ionia facility is making it look easy. With a good product, a unique approach and a strong partnership, "Quality is Job 1."
Even though these bumpers are racked upside down (to keep dirt from falling on the part during production), they can still be inspected in car position. The first inspection station (background) is about 2-3 ft off the ground while the second inspection station is at floor level. This allows inspectors to easily see all parts of the bumper in car position.