ST. THOMAS, Ontario - The uniform wail of machinery in Magna International Inc.'s truck frame plant here is the first sign that this metal shop is different: no thumpa-thump from stamping presses as big as houses.
Magna owns plenty of presses, but not in this plant. Here, where the company makes frames for General Motors' new full-sized pickups, Magna is trying to increase its metalforming business by becoming the best game in town for new technologies.
It has bet heavily on alternatives to stamping such as roll-forming and hydroforming, technologies that have been viewed skeptically by automakers obsessed with cost and volume.
With GM's business, Magna is reaping the benefits of these investments. It believes more automakers will hire suppliers offering one-stop metalforming and assembly with a complete menu of technologies.
Magna's interest in low-cost hydroforming arose six years ago. The company, based in Aurora, Ontario, was searching for ways to separate itself from other suppliers.
PARTS FOR Z3, WINDSTAR
The issue was central to Magna's success. Cosma International Inc., Magna's body and chassis sheet-metal forming subsidiary, is Magna's single largest revenue stream. For fiscal year 1998, Cosma contributed 28 percent of the company's sales.
Cosma supplies complete stamped-steel body-in-whites to BMW's Z3 assembly plant in Spartanburg County, S.C., as well as stamped door and liftgate assemblies for the Ford Windstar.
These and other large stamping contracts have made Cosma a vital driver in increasing Magna's total sales from less than $3 billion Canadian in fiscal year 1992 to $9.2 bil-lion Canadian (about $5.9 billion at current exchange rates) in fiscal 1998, which ended July 31. Magna itself is the world's 11th-largest supplier on Automotive News' list of top global OEM suppliers.
'Metal has always been the heart and soul of the company,' said C. Dennis Bausch, Magna's executive vice president of marketing and planning.
But a few years ago Magna needed a hot technology to wrest business away from more established competitors.
'We didn't want to be a me-too kind of company that only had to offer stamping,' said Fred Jaekel, CEO of Cosma, based in Concord, Ontario. Along the way, Magna acquired Germany's GSM, a hydroforming specialist, and 34 patents on the technology. Contracts came, too.
THE BIG DEAL
However, hydroforming landed its biggest fish on Dec. 9, 1994, when General Motors picked Magna to supply 1.2 million frames a year assembled mainly from hydroformed and roll-formed modules for the 1999 Silverado/Sierra pickups. The contract is worth $367 million a year.
For more than two decades the business had belonged to Dana Corp. and A.O. Smith Automotive Products Co., whose frames used traditional welded stampings assembled with rivets. GM wanted to try something new to improve the product most critical to its profits, said Lerick Chissus, director of metal purchasing for the GM Truck Group.
Magna's case hinged on making the chassis more precise, lighter and cheaper.
The first two objectives were tackled with high-pressure hydroforming. In hydroforming, steel tubes are expanded into the shape of frame parts by water injected into a die at high pressure. The process resembles the way plastic milk jugs are blowmolded with air, and it avoids the step of welding two stamped halves together.
3,000 FRAMES A DAY
Magna's process uses several proprietary technologies. The steel tubes used for the Silverado/Sierra's front suspension crossmember are compressed at the ends by rams while water is injected at 24,000 pounds a square inch. By varying the amount and direction of compression, Magna can control the thickness of the steel along the length of the resulting part, allowing strength to be added only where it is needed.
For the frame's roll-formed center section, steel strips are pulled through a succession of mandrels, which gradually bend the metal into a 'C' shape. The pieces then are bent in special tooling to make the frame's rear 'kick-up,' where the frame rises to accommodate the rear axle, then welded to the hydroformed front module. The entire frame is dipped in a hot wax sealer that stands up to 294 degrees Fahrenheit without melting.
Chissus said constant-seam welding of the frame instead of riveting saved 15 pounds on the Silverado/Sierra's front module alone. The process also produces frames that are dimensionally more accurate; GM boasts that the Silverado/Sierra frame is accurate to within 0.25 millimeters, compared with 3 mm for the old stamped and riveted frames.
GM said in 1996 the new process would shave $60 off the price of the old frame, but today neither Magna nor GM will reveal how much cheaper the new frames actually are.
Any savings help offset the cost of extra machinery needed to produce enough hydroformed chassis to feed GM's three truck plants, or 3,000 frames a day. Because each step - the automated bending, hydroforming, rebending and piercing - takes far longer than the stroke of a stamping press, four hydroforming lines are needed instead of one stamping line.
Chissus insisted that, piece for piece, the frames are still cheaper. One cost saving has been through the reduction of scrap, he said, down 44 pounds a frame from the old model. Future savings will come because the frame modules are easier to retool for changes, and GM expects to save money on warranty costs because of higher quality.
Said Chissus: 'The days of looking at things as a piece price are long gone. The total cost picture said that this was the right decision. As it is, the piece cost is competitive, so the rest is gravy.'