PLASTIC MAKES PERFECT

A late entrant to the automotive market in 1985, electronics giant Siemens has since made fast tracks in this expanding sector. In the past three years 15 new manufacturing sites have been set up supporting key customer markets. From engine management systems to airbag electronics, the DM4bn (£1.38bn) division aims to win a greater share […]

A late entrant to the automotive market in 1985, electronics giant Siemens has since made fast tracks in this expanding sector. In the past three years 15 new manufacturing sites have been set up supporting key customer markets. From engine management systems to airbag electronics, the DM4bn (£1.38bn) division aims to win a greater share of the car electronics market through innovation and systems integration. Its Telford site in the UK, acquired in June 1994, lies at the heart of this strategy.

Three years ago Siemens took what might seem a diversion from its core electronics operations when it bought BTR-Dunlop’s majority stake in the composites moulding business run jointly with a Ford electronics subsidiary at Telford.

Now part of the powertrain operations of Siemens Automotive Systems, the factory is still a joint venture with Ford manufacturing composite components for car engines. Its main product is induction manifolds through which the fuel/air mixture is delivered to the engine.

With its focus on highly engineered plastics, Telford is seen by the German-owned group as a vital component in its drive to expand sales to the automotive sector.

Philip Cousins, managing director of the Telford plant explains: `Siemens sees the plastic manifold as the perfect base into which other engine components can be integrated. It’s not so easy to mould in other parts with cast metals.’

As car manufacturers strive to cut vehicle weight to improve fuel efficiency and cut emissions, plastic is also becoming more attractive than aluminium or other metal castings, says Cousins. `Practically every new engine redesign is being led by tougher emissions legislation, and at least 80% of all new engines are using plastic.’

Telford supplies plastic engine manifolds for two versions of the Ford Zetec engine and the Jaguar AJ-V8, and it has begun to integrate additional products, such as the fuel rail on the V8. As and when car manufacturers demand, Siemens will also be able to integrate other products. These include various sensors, air and fuel parts and emission control components. The aim is to provide a fully integrated air/fuel unit. `The greater the integration at this early stage, the higher the saving for the car manufacturers,’ says Cousins. With this in mind, the Telford site has increased its engineering design staff since 1994.

Turnover at Telford is expected to reach £20m this year, rising to £35m by 1999. Since Siemens bought its stake in 1994, sales have trebled and are expected to double over the next three or four years. Output of manifolds is expected to reach 700,000 units this year, rising to about one million by 2000.

To cope with this expected rise in demand, manifold production lines are being expanded from three to five by next year. Siemens has also introduced the latest friction welding technology alongside the plant’s existing core casting and injection moulding processes.

The inherited technology involves a lengthy and costly process whereby a tin bismuth core is cast then covered with plastic. Using an oil bath, the core is then melted out, leaving the bare plastic manifold. While the metal core is recycled into the process, the manifold is washed and finished off. With the new technology, two halves of a manifold are compressed together by friction. The manifold can then go straight for finishing and customising.

This process will lead to quicker and cheaper manifold production which is also good news for the engine manufacturer, says Cousins. `We don’t need specialist cell manufacturing. Instead, there are just banks of moulding machines and friction welding centres. This will also mean lower capital investment and more flexible manufacturing.’

The existing core casting process will be retained, however, so that Siemens can produce more complicated manifold designs which friction welding cannot cope with.

With Siemens already manufacturing many of the components to be integrated into the manifolds at its many locations throughout the world, advantages for car manufacturers in terms of shorter development times and fewer but more global suppliers are clear.