Could West Michigan Produce Its Own Car

April 12, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — As the Business Journal staff prepared for this edition's focus section on automotive manufacturing, a discussion sprang up.

Would it be possible, one staff member wanted to know, for the automotive manufacturer supply community of the Grand Rapids Statistical Metropolitan Area — using only the materials they manufacture in-house — to produce an automobile from scratch and drive it out the door of a local shop?

The short answer was "no" — insofar as this community seems to have no tire manufacturers. That meant the vehicle in question probably would have to roll on its rims.

Aside from that, the list of automotive suppliers in the Grand Rapids-Muskegon-Holland triangle didn't seem to include an enterprise that manufactures the assembly that links the front wheels and the steering column.

Thus, the vehicle in question likely would need one item from some other economy, presumably in Michigan, before it could be steered to a parking place in the shop lot.

There seems to be no question that this community certainly has the design and workshop resources and talent to custom fabricate a car from scratch. The steering gear parts alone probably could be custom constructed by any number of area tool makers, if not by Dana Corp., which already does tie rods, front axles, and universal and ball joints (not to mention brakes, clutches, frames, Unibody components and chassis modules).

But with those qualifications aside, it appears the answer is at least a qualified yes: West Michigan could manufacture a theoretical car from the parts it makes and has on the shelf.

What one would call the West Michigan automotive supplier economy — which seems to amount to at least 96 companies — seems to produce all the parts necessary to create a complete automobile.

The car could be started and driven. It would shelter the driver from the weather and the bugs while meeting all statutory safety requirements, plus EPA's regulations.

Moreover, it could have complete exterior trim, plus lots of extras including NavStar and smart mirrors.

Now, it's identified here as a theoretical car only because all the parts produced in West Michigan might not be mutually compatible. Suppliers here aren't necessarily all part of the same supply chains for all the same Detroit models.

But it seems safe to say that if West Michigan auto supply industry decided to take the rest of April off, the Big Three probably would end up closing several major plants for the same period.

The converse is true, of course, and a problem. When Detroit gets an economic cold, West Michigan often suffers bronchitis. For as diverse as the region's economy is becoming, the facts that contribute to this story show West Michigan still is a major enabler of — and very much a dependent upon — the American auto industry.

West Michigan's auto supply economy ranges enormously in age and size.

Donnelly Corp. of Holland for instance, is just three years shy of celebrating its centennial. It employs 2,000 people and supplies mirrors, glass, cameras and safety and door handles to all the Big Three.

A much smaller but highly automated firm in Muskegon, Michigan Spring, produces the tiny springs — all of them for the entire American automotive industry — for the little steel flaps that snap shut when one pulls the key from a door lock keyway.

That's by no means Michigan Spring's only contribution to the auto industry.

Meanwhile, at the third corner of the West Michigan triangle, Grand Rapids is dotted with auto supply firms ranging from Autocam Corp. and Gill Industries, with 350 and 550 employees respectively, to small companies such as Independent Die Cutting and Alloy Exchange.

Independent creates dies for pressure-sensitive adhesives for decals, while Alloy Exchange supplies plastics to companies higher in the supply chain.

Autocam produces precision components for fuel, braking and power steering systems. It also produces electro-mechanical motors and air bag components.

Gill Industries stamps, welds and assembles latches, headrests, consoles, braking and chassis components.

The list of suppliers often reveals surprises.

Autos, for instance, still contain cast iron components. Granted, they no longer are crude engine blocks produced in enormous foundries spewing coke dust and sulfur dioxide.

Instead, firms such as Sparta Foundry and GRF Industries produce precision grey iron and ductile castings for everything from transmission housings to carburetors.

Then there's Auto Cast Inc., which produces precise aluminum and zinc die castings and assemblies.

And, speaking of precision, that's the middle name of Comstock Park's CNC Precision Machining, which produces components and parts for machine builders who, in turn, serve the auto suppliers.

In Grand Haven, Eagle Ottawa provides the leather for seating. Grand Rapids Controls produces push-pull cables and components.

And the list just goes on and on, far beyond the space available.

For it happens that big suppliers are supplied by smaller suppliers, which often work beside them, and those suppliers have yet other suppliers, and so on ad infinitum.

Just for starters, one might say, H&L Manufacturing supplies wire and cable assemblies for Delphi Automotive ignition systems.

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