HOLLAND, Mich. -- Until the early 1990s, many suppliers used three steps to create instrument panels.
Then the pricing hammer came down. The soft, multilayer construction that had been common was abandoned for nearly every model except luxury nameplates.
While the products that followed were less expensive to make, some drivers were dismayed by what they viewed as a sea of cheap black plastic in their cars.
Interiors supplier Johnson Controls Inc. has launched its version of the industry's happy medium.
Johnson Controls' automotive unit in Plymouth, Mich., says its CrafTec family of processes, which combine better looks with moderately priced production techniques, offers customers a chance to improve interior aesthetics while keeping an eye on the bottom line.
"The trick is to have a crystal ball in terms of interiors and what they want in appearance and content," says Bill Fluharty, vice president of industrial design and new product strategy, during a visit to Johnson Controls' product development center here. "We're looking at what we can do in processing but also design and content."
The company's CrafTec Partial Foam-in-Place process is used to make panels for Mazda Motor Corp. The system injects foam between the substrate and the skin in an automated process, providing a soft feel at a lower price.
In May, the company began production of its second CrafTec process called the Partial Mold-Behind, which automates placement of a textile or vinyl skin accent on the injection-molded substrate.
A third process, Multi-Color Injection, will be used next year.
"It's a portfolio that's evolving while we speak," Fluharty says.
Johnson Controls installed a new 1,100-ton press at another plant here to make door panels for the 2006 Mitsubishi Eclipse sedan using Partial Mold-Behind.
The process begins by vacuum-forming a polyvinyl chloride insert to mold it into the proper shape. Robots then move the vinyl trim into place in the injection-molding press, where the substrate is molded onto it.
The process produces a door panel in less than a minute, with an insert that provides a different look and feel, says Dave Phillips, executive director of interiors business development.
A simple change in the material used for the insert can provide a different look to the car, with sporty accents or trim to match the seat colors, at no additional cost, he says.
Creating the look is not easy, though.
To leave a crisp line between the materials in the Partial Mold-Behind or a precise shift in colors under the upcoming Multi-Color Injection system, designers have to know where to place a deep groove in the surface that will provide a clean connecting point on the back of the panel for the materials.
This Chevrolet Impala door panel insert is made using Johnson Controls' CrafTec Partial Mold-Behind process.
"It's about process, it's about design, it's about molding," Phillips says.
And it is something customers are expecting interior specialists to provide if they want to compete.
"There seems to have been a wake-up call going on that cockpits are important," says Mitra O'Malley, a principal with consulting firm ITB Group of Novi, Mich. "Things were shoddy-looking, cheap-looking. Now even the medium-level vehicles are going to have more elaborate interiors."
Lear Corp. just started producing its multimaterial system using two-shot molding and is investing in new equipment for its programs.
Visteon Corp.'s two-color process, which debuted on the new Ford Mustang, uses standard presses and tools but has a proprietary process to control the flow of different colored plastics into the press.
When the CrafTec Multi-Color Injection system debuts next year, it will take a middle ground. It will not require multishot molding but will use a press with two barrels to provide better control of the material flow.
Johnson Controls is betting that its CrafTec processes will have the results automakers want and provide a backdrop for continued improvements.
"This is one of those processes out there that will help Johnson Controls become a smarter supplier," Fluharty says.
Johnson Controls Inc.'s automotive unit in Plymouth, Mich., ranks No. 4 on the Automotive News list of the top 150 suppliers to North America with North American original-equipment automotive parts sales of $9.5 billion in 2004.