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Oxford Automotive: 'Go Fast' Strategy in Action

Although it can sometimes take a year to get a stamping press put in place, the people at Oxford Automotive did somewhat better: They installed 32 presses (some new, some used) in a plant and got them running in 11 months. And one more thing: They had to build the plant, too.

"On September 2, 1998, it was just a piece of dirt. Eleven months later, we were producing parts on the presses." So says Steven M. Abelman, president and CEO of Oxford Automotive (Troy, MI), a tier-one supplier of metal components, assemblies and modules. Abelman is referring to a piece of dirt in Ramos Arizpe, Mexico, that has had a 330,000 ft2 manufacturing facility produced on top of it—ASAP.

 

Oxford Automotive
In less than a year, this plant was built by Oxford Automotive in Ramos Arizpe, Mexico. In less than two years (18 months), they were running production in the plant of class A closures and a variety of other stamped parts.

Just to get a sense of how fast this is: Abelman points out that ordinarily, it can require a year just to get a stamping press. In this case, not only does Oxford have a press in Ramos Arizpe, it has more than 30 of them, ranging in size from 150 to 1,500 tons. And, in addition to the 32 presses, there are 63 robots. At full production, there will be approximately 400 people in the plant, producing class-A closure assemblies (13 different closures for two different vehicles), underbody assemblies, wheel houses, rear compartments, and front floor assemblies. As Abelman observes, "This is not easy stuff. It requires technical expertise and precision." And it is worth noting that this isn't onesy-twosy production, either. Abelman describes it as "fairly high volume."

It must be admitted that although they were up and running in 11 months, it took somewhat longer for them to get fully rolled out—18 months.

How did they do it? Abelman's simple answer belies the complexity behind pulling it off: "Great program management."

Asked why they did it, he responds, "Because our customers expect it of us." Abelman adds, "All OEMs want to launch faster."

Asked whether they'll do it again: "I don't think there is going to be an option"—and he means an option not to continue to pursue what they call at Oxford their "Go Fast" strategy.

Doing the Right Things.
It began with a benchmark study of stamping operations around the world. Oxford has 24 stamping facilities in five countries, so many of its people have a good handle on what is going on throughout the world of stamping and forming, but they wanted to find out what was really going on. So they initiated the benchmarking program to determine who was doing what where and how they were doing it.

One of the conclusions that they reached was that there would be a necessity to develop a system wherein they wouldn't have to do things sequentially—which is pretty much the norm—but simultaneously. So a global program management system was established that permitted them to track product and process technology and to communicate best practices on a global basis. Of the program management team, which was charged with handling design, engineering and manufacturing—just to name the major categories—Abelman says that it "isn't overburdened with hierarchy; it just has people who understand and do their jobs." Presumably, there is a bias for action among these people. Abelman amplifies his point: "It's the right people. That's really important."

Getting It Right.
With regard to suppliers, Abelman says that it was crucial that there was buy-in. He describes the group as "a United Nations of suppliers." Oxford understands that technology is global, which is reflected in its own supply base.

He says, "Everyone"—suppliers and Oxford personnel—"under-stood from the onset what their responsibilities were, and how we were going to manage the thing. Everyone had the support that they needed.

"We had the core engineering to support the program. The suppliers understood their responsibilities up front."

Abelman admits that some sup-pliers opted out of the project—before it started. After it got going, everyone was with the program. "Everyone was committed to managing it the way it needed to be done, and everyone committed to resolving issues in a timely manner." Regular meetings were conducted in the corporate office in Michigan. More than 20 Mexican nationals who were going to be instrumental in running the Ramos Arizpe plant were included on the team.

 

Ramos Arizpe
One of the clever things that they've done in Ramos Arizpe, says Oxford Automotive president and CEO Steven M. Abelman, is engineer the pits beneath the concrete such that presses can be changed without having to do any additional work in the pits.

"As we got into it, a lot of people thought we couldn't do it," Abelman admits. But he points out that this limitation was as much mental as anything else: people were thinking that things had to be done in a sequential manner. That isn't how they did it. Abelman explains that they orchestrated the building of the plant with the building of the presses so that as soon as possible, the presses were moved into place. And that there was similar coordination between the presses and the tooling.

"We would bring everyone to-gether to talk about the same timeline," Abelman explains. He adds, "The key things are communication and decisive action. There was a commitment on the team to resolve issues—and there are always issues."

Abelman points out another important aspect: "Did we make it happen by throwing a lot of people at it? No. We made it happen by throwing the right people at it." As you may have noticed, the proper people are critical to speed.

Right from the Start.
Prior to Ramos Arizpe, Oxford had two plants in Mexico. "We used them to create the infrastructure we'd need," Abelman says. That is, in one of the plants they established all of the TPM, QS9000, and tool maintenance from the standpoint of dies; in the other plant they did the same as regards assembly. That way, there were knowledgeable people who know how these systems work and what needs to be done who were ready to take on the challenge of the new plant—well before there was a new plant. Anticipation is essential.

Don't Write Big Checks.
If you bring your photographic film to a shop to be developed in one hour, you'll pay more than you will if you opt to have over-night processing. So, does this mean that Oxford paid a premium for Ramos Arizpe? No. In fact, Abelman says that the overall cost (without the time value of money taken into account) was the same as it would have been if the plan called for 48 months rather than 18 months.

And, of course, by doing it more quickly, Oxford Automotive has the opportunity to start working on its ROI earlier in the cycle. Which, coupled with being able to serve its customers in a timely manner—to put it mildly—means there is a nontrivial competitive advantage associated with speed.