Moulding success

Posted on 18 Aug 2008 by The Manufacturer

Investment in technology and skills and a clear focus on key partnerships are essential to Mitras Automotive’s strategy for growth and development into new markets

It’s good to have a specialisation – but Mitras Automotive has proven that with good process engineering skills and the right manufacturing disciplines, it is possible to successfully diversify into new technologies and markets. In recent years, Mitras Automotive – an established tier one supplier to the automotive industry – has sought to broaden its long-term development strategy to include construction and agricultural vehicles, and domestic door products. It seems to be going the right way, as turnover is projected to be up around 30 per cent over 2006, on the back of strong growth in these new markets.

When the company that became Mitras Automotive UK was founded in 1977, its focus was pretty clear: manufacturing moulded plastics parts to make up the cabs for ERF, its then truckmanufacturing parent company. After passing through Dutch ownership, the company became part of Mitras in 1995. Now based in Winsford, Cheshire, the Mitras name was retained when the business was sold to its current owners in 2001. “We’re now part of a progressive European group, with sister companies in Germany and Spain,” said Alan McClelland, business development manager.

Traditionally, Mitras’ business has been supplying bespoke engineered plastic parts to automotive OEMs. “Our traditional raw material is known as sheet moulding compound (SMC), which is a fibre-reinforced composite material, widely used by vehicle manufacturers as a replacement for steel because of its mechanical strength and dimensional accuracy.

“The basis of the company is that we have to do something that makes the customer go ‘aha!’,” said Peter Middleton, managing director. “We normally get involved with our customers at the conceptual stage, either as co-designers or with complete design responsibility. Co-operation up and down the supply chain is very important – we work very closely with our suppliers on mould tools and resin formulations, in order to deliver the right product. Specifications of glass content, strength requirements and qualities vary depending on application. We’re not in the business of making simple parts, as ultimately our customers will get them from low-cost countries. We specialise in more complex products, where our design and manufacturing expertise is truly valued. The Range Rover spoiler we produce is a complete bonded assembly including a camera unit and rear tail light, which can be painted in up to 14 different colours.”

Mitras has nine compression presses, ranging up to 3,000 tonnes with platen sizes of up to 3.5 square metres, which allows them to handle large scale components. This has become a particular specialism of the business.

Mitras’ strongest growth of late has come from the construction and agricultural vehicle market, where the automotive industry disciplines and focus on quality and delivery performance are greatly valued. The cab f loor for JCB’s backhoe loader, which Mitras produces, weighs over 60 kilogrammes, and is integral to the vehicle’s cab design – enhancing the interior appearance and allowing a far greater level of component integration, while importantly simplifying the assembly process and reducing takt times. It’s a long way from simply being a floor.

A desire to better serve these new market areas has taken the company into new technologies. It has invested over £1 million in equipping a new factory nearby in Winsford, which manufactures pDCPD (polydicyclopentadiene) components, such as fenders and hoods for construction vehicles. The new technology has extended Mitras’ reach into lower volume series production, typical of offhighway vehicles, and created an opportunity for early design involvement.

A ground-breaking application of in-mould painting technology has created a significant opportunity in the domestic door market. “This was a tough challenge as moulding a large thin door skin with numerous ribs and bosses is technically difficult in itself, but then looking to combine this with an in-mould coating process certainly proved a real test,” said Rob Scott, Mitras’ sales and marketing manager.

“Operating in the automotive industry we have to be a process driven business, and we put a great deal of emphasis on planning robust and repeatable processes in our manufacturing operation. We have clearly defined and standardised the work in all areas of our production facilities, and have automated and put in error-proofing wherever possible,” Middleton continued. “TPM is part of our maintenance process and we constantly measure OEE to ensure we are getting the maximum from each element of the operation. We have short daily production meetings where we focus on the issues of the day, and then go through all aspects of our operations at our weekly management meetings. Our KPIs are used as key drivers within the business, and these are displayed all around our factories.

“What we’re seeking to do is to use lean to take our factories to another level, and our key supply partners have an important role to play in this journey. The auto industry is rightly focused on QCD (quality, cost and delivery) performance metrics, but these are important elements in any business, which is why we take the same philosophies to all our markets. Our aim is always to meet or exceed our customers’ expectations, and while this can be challenging at times, our experience is that it brings its own rewards.”