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Nonwovens / Technical Textiles

Gates Formed-Fibre Products

Producer of nonwoven-based automotive interior trim systems strives to operate efficiently without sacrificing quality.<b>By Richard G. Mansfield, Technical Editor</b>

By Richard G. Mansfield, Technical Editor Gates Formed-Fibre ProductsProducer of nonwoven-based automotive interior trim systems strives to operate efficiently without sacrificing quality. In recent years, automobile manufacturers have recognized that nonwoven products offer great versatility and cost effectiveness for their vehicles. Automotive uses of nonwovens were introduced in the early 1950s, when needlepunched waste fibers were adapted for carpet underpadding for thermal and sound insulation. In the mid-1970s, car makers started to use solution-dyed needlepunched fabrics for trunk mats and package trays. A major advantage of nonwovens is their ability to be readily molded and to provide cushioning and loft. Woven fabrics do not elongate readily, and knits tend to recover their original shape. Improving Automotive/Supply TiesAn article published in the August 12, 2002, issue of Plastic News ("Automakers strive to Mend Supplier Ties") discusses General Motors' (GM) efforts to continue its goodwill to push suppliers. The article quotes GM Vice President Robert Lutz: "The days are long past where GM was so arrogant that we thought we knew everything, invented everything and were better at everything than everybody else in the vworld.... Dead suppliers do not do us any good. Interior and exterior giants and even small component manufacturers know more about their parts than does GM. They are the ones who know how the automaker can succeed. To our suppliers, I say suggest different ways of doing things, if you know better ways, we will listen, I promise." GM Salutes On-Time Performance By GatesIn April 2002, GM Service Parts Operations presented Gates Formed Fibre Products Inc., Auburn, Maine, with an award certificate identifying the company as having delivered products on time, 100 percent of the time, during all of 2001."This performance plays an integral part in our vision statement," said GM Logistics Executive Director Dennis Mishler. He noted that on-time deliveries are especially important to the car maker's ability to provide consistent, dependable customer service. Gates' Plant Manager Jim Craig said timely deliveries are the product of operating efficiently within tight time constraints and without sacrificing quality. According to Craig, Gates employees work hard to ensure customer satisfaction. "No one person makes this happenit's a group effort," he said.

Gates Formed-Fibre Products produces nonwoven-based products for automotive trunk and interior trim systems. Gates' Expansion Teamwork And TechnologyGates Formed-Fibre Products employs 430 people at its Auburn location to produce nonwoven-based products for automotive trunk and interior trim systems. The company is a division of Gates Rubber Co. and its parent company, London-based Tomkins plc. Tomkins is a world-class engineering and manufacturing group engaged in three major classes of business: Air System Components, EngineeredandConstruction Products, and the Industrial and Automotive Group.A sign of the health of Gates' business as a supplier of automotive components is the large "Now Hiring" sign adjacent to the plant entrance, and a parking lot full of employees' cars. In August, the state of Maine reported a relatively low 4-percent overall unemployment rate. Job gains were primarily in government and service sectors, and manufacturing jobs had declined, so Gates' need for additional employees has been welcomed in the Auburn/Lewiston area. A Brief HistoryThe beginnings of Gates Formed-Fibre Products go back to 1979 with the establishment of a small venture group by Albany Intemational. In 1984, Gates Corp. purchased and expanded the venture group and formed Gates Formed-Fibre Products Inc. A major development by Gates for automotive trunks was Con-Form®.In 1989, the company began the extrusion of polyester staple for internal use and also for external sales. During the l990s, Gates invented Tara-Lock, a velour nonwoven for interior trim. In 2000, Gates acquired Ikeda Interior Systems Inc., a Sydney, Ohio-based manufacturer of finished automotive trim.Automotive users of Gates Formed-Fibre Products include Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Ford, GM, Holden, Honda, Jaguar, Lotus, Land Rover, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Peugeot, Subaru, Toyota and Vauxhall.Gates Formed-Fibre Products and its affiliates are QS 9000- and ISO 9002-certified. They expect to receive ISO 14001 registration soon. Automotive Manufacturer/Supplier PartneringScott A. Miller, vice president, sales, emphasized how the growing interdependence of automotive manufacturers and their suppliers is creating true working partnerships. As a result, automotive companies are working with their suppliers on car models that will be produced over the next four to five years. Gates has sales people based in Detroit, as well as at the Auburn plant. The company also has some of its design people based at suppliers' plants in order to develop components for future models and to make modifications to parts where required. Gates has partnered with a firm in Japan in order to work with the designers for Japanese car producers on future production models. 
Gates uses robotic systems to cut fabric for automotive interior components.Miller cited an example of how modifications had to be made quickly for a trunk liner to accomodate the installation of electronic navigation systems. Because of its close working relationships with the customer's design and planning group, Gates was able to respond to this change without disrupting the supply of trunk liners and without incurring waste.  The development of patented thermal bonding technology resulted in the elimination of latex in some trunk and interior components. Latex has been a major contributor to interior windshield fogging in vehicles and also to fabric bearding. Gates has never used latex for its fabrics, and the introduction of its Tara-Lock fabric provided GM with fabric that has superior resistance to bearding and freedom from windshield fogging.David M. MacMahon, president, said the company, rather than being just a material supplier to the automotive industry, has become a supplier of systems. The ability to interact with the customer during the design phase of automotive interiors enables Gates to help engineer and, in some cases, reduce the number ofinterior components. Gates also procures and supplies products that relate to the components it supplies. An example of this would be the cargo nets that are used in automotive trunks.MacMahon cited the close working relationship within the company of the sales, design, engineering and production people as a major factor in the company's success in being able to meet the high quality and cost improvement standards of the automotive industry. ProcessingGates has two extrusion lines for making polyester (PET) fibers, and it can produce up to 12 million pounds per year. Fibers can be produced from 3 to 25 denier in cut lengths from 1.5 to 6 inches. The PET resins used include recycled soda bottles and other packaging materials, and virgin resin for some uses in which the base color of recycled resin is not suitable. The company has developed expertise in color matching for its PET fiber production and can provide production runs as small as 10,000 pounds. It has about 120 active colors for its programs. Gates also can provide tow blends of two or more colors when required for accurate and reproducible blending of component fibers. 
 For processing staple fiber, Gates uses bin blending with two bins per line. The lines are equipped with Omni and Haigh-Chadwick systems. Subsequent processing uses Thibeau cards equipped with Asselin crosslappers. Needlepunching is done using 2.5-meter-wide Fehrer needlelooms and Dilo structured needlelooms. Needlepunched materials for trunk liners weigh from 30 to 40 ounces per square yard (oz/yd2), and structured needlepunched materials for interior trim weigh 6 to 14 oz/yd2. The company also is now using stitchbonding technology for some of its products. Thermalbonding is done using compression and through-air equipment. Cutting of parts is done by robotically controlled water-jet cutting equipment using 45,000 pounds per square inch (psi) water jets. Major advantages of water-jet cutting are that no fibers are fused in the cutting process, and quick changeovers can be made for different products.Gates is the only needlepunched nonwoven fabric producer that produces its own PET fiber, and needlepunches and thermoforms automotive components all under one roof. Plant Operation And Utilities
The Auburn facility operates on a four-shift, 12-hours-per-shift basis. Production workers work four days and have four days off. The company's close ties with its customers allow smooth production scheduling and provide steady work for its production employees. The deregulation of electric power rates in Maine has been advantageous to Gates and has enabled it to obtain electric power at attractive rates. The company taps into the local power grid and obtains electricity at 34,000 volts. It then uses internal control equipment to step the voltage down to machinery requirements. The plant has ready access to a reliable supply of natural gas. It also uses very little water for processing as a result of its elimination of latex use and its development of proprietary thermal bonding processes. The only liquid waste from its operation is water for personal hygienic needs, which is readily handled by the town's sewage treatment system. Other Gates OperationsThe acquisition of the Ikeda Interior Systems operation in Ohio has provided Gates with another facility for conversion and molding of fabric shipped from Auburn, allowing it to reduce shipping costs and to provide quicker service to nearby automotive customers.  
David MacMahon (left) and Scott A. MillerPilot scale extrusion, carding, needling and molding equipment are important factors in conducting pre-production trials and in developing new products for automotive applications. Gates has a fully equipped laboratory for analyzing material. The development of patentable technology and years of accumulated know-how have enabled Gates to license its technology for automotive interior fabrics in Australia, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, South Africa and the United Kingdom. December 2002