FRANKFURT - France's Groupe Michelin has entered into two cooperative agreements that will give it entry into the automotive suspension business and will secure global supply possibilities for noise, vibration and harshness damping components.
The partnerships, with Ger-many's Woco Industrietechnik GmbH and France's Groupe Vallourec, are expected to let the French tire maker expand a relatively small business unit into a possible worldwide supplier of noise, vibration and harshness parts and car axles, according to Philippe Verneuil, president of Michelin's wheels and suspension systems strategic business unit.
So far, the companies don't plan to create joint ventures or exchange ownership stakes. Instead, they will work together on a project-by-project basis, bringing their engineering expertise to bear on customer problems, Verneuil said in an interview.
The basis for the company's suspension systems business unit is the Michelin factory in Decize, France. The factory previously was the rubber-to-metal bonding operation of Michelin's Kleber Industrie subsidiary.
Michelin sold Kleber's automotive hose and belting activities to Gates Rubber Co. five years ago but retained the plant in Decize. Today the factory generates about $110 million in annual sales.
Cut weight, cost
Each partner hopes the cooperation will lead to new business with automakers, so each will benefit from added sales, said Gerard Terneyre, president of Vallourec. The company is a metal fabricator that makes the individual parts of car suspensions and other automotive systems.
'We believe we can bring a different perspective to our customers' problems,' Terneyre said. 'They are looking for reductions in weight and cost, and we believe we can deliver a component that is 30 to 50 percent lighter and cheaper and is easier to fit to the car's chassis on the assembly line.'
Together, Michelin and Vallourec propose replacing the axle, springs, torsion bars and other parts of a standard front-wheel-drive car's rear suspension with a hollow tube axle that uses natural rubber bushings to take up the torsion forces and act as springs. The standard steel version would be 30 percent lighter, while a proposed aluminum version would be 50 percent lighter, Verneuil said.
Michelin engineers, conducting research into suspension dynamics to support tire development, had proposed using rubber bushings in place of metal torsion bars and springs. But customers questioned the tire maker's expertise in suspension design, Verneuil said.
Verneuil and his colleagues realized they needed a partner with suspension experience to help open doors and eventually co-produce the part. Vallourec and Michelin started working together two years ago and expect to gain some fittings for some 2002 or 2003 model year cars, Verneuil said.
The companies decided to concentrate on the solid rear axle system of smaller fwd cars because of their relative simplicity, but such cars make up the majority of the 14 million cars sold annually in Europe.
'In some ways we're facing a challenge similar to that which confronted the radial tire in the 1950s. It's new technology from an unfamiliar supplier,' Verneuil said.
On its own, Michelin has developed a lightweight, compact shock absorber mount that it is selling to several European original equipment customers. This development could serve as the basis for a strut assembly business, either on its own or in a joint venture with an appropriate partner, Verneuil said.
Michelin's cooperation with Woco is less evolved - the two companies started working together seriously in January - but executives for both firms are excited about the prospects for gaining additional noise, vibration and harshness contracts that their combined expertise should generate.
The cooperative project, involving a noise problem with an existing European car model, already has proposed changes in design that would reduce the noise level by two to three decibels without changing any handling characteristics, said Bernhard Wolf, a Woco executive.
'Customer demand is driving us to these partnerships,' Wolf said. 'The carmakers are seeking innovative thinking to help them solve problems.'
In the Michelin-Woco partnership, each company brings decades of experience in rubber-to-metal bonding and, more recently, expertise in acoustics modeling.
Woco brings worldwide manufacturing capability - the company operates more than 30 factories globally, some wholly owned, some minority-owned and some only in technical partnership.