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Plastic & Profits

Automakers don’t have to default to the aftermarket for optional trim and appearance pieces, says Auburn Engineering. With a little thought, it claims, these programs can be done in-house.

Mass personalization is often mentioned, but rarely implemented. Despite buyer interest in unique trim, add-ons, or appearance pieces, more often than not it is the aftermarket that fulfills these desires. Cost is the most quoted reason for the abyss between dream and reality at the OEM, but it is often a lack of creativity and imagination that prevents automakers from supplying the parts—and reaping the profits. According to Reid Scott, president of Auburn Engineering (Rochester Hills, MI; www.auburn.com), “I think these guys go to the SEMA Show in Las Vegas and get all excited about what they could offer. When they start to put the numbers down on paper, however, they look at it from a volume-production standpoint. From that outlook, something like this will never be profitable.” But as Auburn Engineering is a rapid prototyping and limited-volume production company, its point of view is different. It is this outlook, Scott says, that gives it the ability to deconstruct the problem in a way that takes into account an OEM’s concerns. “Offering pieces that are ‘official from the factory’ parts gives the automaker control over how they look, feel, and fit,” he says. “This has real value in the eyes of the customer, and you are not handing your brand equity over to a third party and hope everything goes well.”

Since most of the parts in question are built in low volumes and made of plastic, Scott suggests the OEMs rethink their requirements. If the part does not have a high take-rate, the machines making it don’t have to be capable of running 24/7/365 and they don’t need to be fully automated. It also means it probably isn’t necessary to make the molds from tool steel. “More often than not,” he says, “we can make the molds from aluminum for use on a semi-automatic tool. That means cost may be only 50% of a high-volume part.” And though Scott concedes the longer cycle time will increase the piece price slightly, “it’s still possible to make a very good business case to move ahead.”

One company that has listened is Mazda. Though the parts in question are seemingly trivial—a fog light kit for the Mazda6 and a rear bumper scuff pad for the Mazda3, Mazda5, Tribute, and CX-7—the ability to offer them as turn-key, dealer-installed items keeps the money for these accessories from heading out the door. Auburn also supplied plastic trim pieces to Magna for the Ford Focus Kona Edition, as well as a number of unique underhood parts for the Chevy SSR. In addition, says Scott, other pieces could be added to this list by designing a basic version that can be upgraded by adding sections with body color or different finishes. What Scott has seen all too often are programs like the one where the OEM planned for an optional piece with a high take rate, then pulled the plug when it came time to sign the contract. “Starting out with aluminum tooling would have let the OEM see how well it was received while leaving the door open for mild-steel tools if the volumes justified it,” he says. As it is, aftermarket companies will supply the part instead, and reap all of the benefits. To combat this, Scott suggests OEMs create rules that circumvent those parts of the quote process that don’t apply to low-volume parts. “OEMs understand there is more profit to be made, but not the cost structure behind it,” he says. “They must get more creative.”