Investing in speed To accelerate growth

March 5, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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Autodie LLC has a $24 million plan aimed at making it “one of the largest businesses of our kind in the world again,” in the words of David Darling.

“What we are looking to do is become sustainable — level and sustainable — for a very long time to come,” added Darling, who heads the large plant at 44 Coldbrook St. NW, due north of downtown Grand Rapids.

Autodie has notified the city that it wants to invest $24 million to modernize its CNC milling machines and plant infrastructure over the next 12 to 18 months.

Kara Wood, economic development director for Grand Rapids, said her office just received an application from Autodie for a 50 percent abatement on personal property tax that would be assessed on the new equipment. The company’s investment plan will be presented to the city commission March 22.

“The machines will allow them to increase their efficiency and hopefully allow them to contract for more work and retain the existing jobs that they have. At this point, we’re not sure exactly how many jobs might be created or retained; we’re still working with Autodie on those issues.”

Wood added that Autodie is “a very important company to the city of Grand Rapids” because it pays “good wages.”

“It will be important for the city to retain those jobs,” she said.

Darling said the Autodie work force tends to fluctuate but, in general, there are about 300 people at the plant in Grand Rapids. It also has a design facility in Ohio that employs several people.

A competing tool-and-die shop that went out of business a few years ago had “a very talented engineering team” at the Ohio location, so “we hired them, because we were having a hard time finding people, locally,” according to Darling.

Autodie isn’t the average tool-and-die shop. According to the company website, it specializes in engineering and making large and complex dies. Its dies are used in stamping presses that produce auto side panels, doors, hoods, roofs and fenders, and major reinforcement pillars. Autodie also produces transfer and line dies and works with advanced, high-strength steel applications.

The company was founded in 1962 and, according to Darling, eventually became one of the world’s largest engineering and production facilities for large, complex dies used by the transportation equipment industry. In the late 1990s, Autodie had almost 900 employees, but then slid into financial troubles. By 2006, it was in danger of closing.

That year, MBtech, a subsidiary of what was then DaimlerChrysler, a German/American automaker, bought Autodie. In 2007, Daimler sold Chrysler and Autodie went with the American automaker.

Darling said Autodie today is a wholly owned subsidiary of Chrysler “but very much an independent company.” Chrysler has given Autodie “very strict requirements” to find more than 50 percent of its business from companies not connected with Chrysler.

Autodie customers today include BMW, Volkswagen, General Motors “and a host of Tier One companies, as well,” said Darling.

Darling, who joined DaimlerChrysler AG in 2000 as an employee relations manager focused on lean manufacturing improvements, said he has been at Autodie since Chrysler took it over.

“For those of us who are close to tool-and-die, this place is historic in a lot of respects, and it just killed us to see the amount of trouble it was in,” said Darling.

The first step was to renew the plant’s commitment to technology. The previous management, Darling said, had “in our opinion, very foolishly walked away from the concept of engineering, had believed that was a commodity item that could be bought. Our philosophy couldn’t be any more opposite, as we sit here today,” he said.

The plant was equipped with machinery that was “30 years old, on average, and we were competing against regions of the world that get paid pennies on the dollar versus our employees — and (they are) operating state-of-the-art equipment.”

Some of that equipment was 15 times faster than Autodie’s, he added.

To support lean manufacturing, the new management began “decrudding” the Autodie plant — deep cleaning and repainting from floor to ceiling. But it’s not simply cosmetic, said Darling. It’s far easier to spot an oil leak from a piece of machinery if the floor under it or wall next to it isn’t covered with layers of dirt on top of drab gray paint.

The next step focused on its “try-out” presses, which are used to test newly made dies before shipping them to customers. Many were obsolete, so the company replaced them with used try-out presses, which have been readily available since the downturn of the U.S. tool-and-die industry.

Now, Darling said, “the big investment is going into machine tools — CNC equipment. And that is all coming new.” Only a few countries — Japan and Western Europe — manufacture CNC machinery in the large size required by Autodie, he said.

Darling said he is not aware of another die shop quite like Autodie. “Our average work piece is 180 inches long and it’s about 40,000 pounds.” CNC equipment built to handle that size “doesn’t grow on trees,” he said.

Not many other American companies are investing in tool-and-die these days, said Darling.

“A while ago, a lot of our competitors made the decision that they were just going to outsource” die building to the Chinese, “and then finish it in the States. We made a very conscious decision that if we can’t build here and be successful, we shouldn’t be in business here,” he said.

Some customers of Chinese dies have had trouble with the quality, but Darling said he has spent a good deal of time in China, where tool-and-die shops have hired “the best minds” in tool-and-die from Europe and Korea to help them improve.

“It’s only a matter of time before they figure it out, but what’s more interesting is, their market is growing at such an alarming rate that a lot of those resources are going to be spent building dies for the Chinese market. So we believe that trend is going to start bringing work back to the states. We’re already seeing it. But our goal is to insulate ourselves from that as much as possible by trying to become one of the fastest builders of these types of types of dies in the world. That’s our goal that all of us share here.”

Autodie is bringing in the new CNC equipment “to grow revenue,” said Darling, and a growth in revenue will bring an increase in employment. “Just buying the machines doesn’t ensure our success. We still, as a company, have to deliver. And more importantly, we still have to offer a price the market is willing to pay.”

Since joining Autodie, Darling has been responsible for development of many key technologies in both the manufacturing and engineering. He holds a law degree in labor and employment law from Wayne State University, and also an MBA in industrial operations management from Oakland University, plus a degree from Western Michigan University in business management.

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