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Sunday, 10 May 2015 22:00

Creating differentiation with small innovations

Written by  Melissa Anderson
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Melissa Anderson Melissa Anderson COURTESY PHOTO

The trade-offs that are made to gain improvements in fuel economy and emissions reductions can spawn new needs and create opportunities for enterprising component suppliers.

In fact, the experience of one IRN client offers a model of how a quick-witted company can progress from being a problem-solver to gaining a competitive advantage in this environment.

Automotive powertrain engineers have been calibrating internal combustion engines more tightly over the years to achieve better fuel economy and engine efficiency. One side effect of limiting the amount of air flowing through the engine has been engines that produce less vacuum (defined here as the difference in pressure between the interior of the intake manifold and the outside air).

This is of interest because vacuum has been used as “free power” by engineers elsewhere in the OEM organizations for many years to assist the operation of windshield wipers, door locks, the emission control system and more.

An auxiliary system where the former level of vacuum is particularly missed is the brake booster, where vacuum actuates a diaphragm that amplifies the driver’s braking input. Brake system engineers can negotiate with the powertrain department for parameters that will provide more vacuum, but they often have to seek other solutions.

Nyloncraft Inc. is a producer of engineered plastic components that is located just south of Michigan in Mishawaka, Ind. Its product line is principally under-hood and structural automotive components. Since the mid-1990s, it has been successful with a patented product it calls a vacuum aspirator. The aspirator is a device that takes limited air as a controlled leak from the engine intake manifold and multiplies it through a “venturi effect” to increase vacuum pressure.

It is an elegant solution at a very reasonable price, particularly considering that the most common alternative solution is the addition of a mechanical or electric vacuum pump at the cost of $30 to $80 per vehicle.

Nyloncraft picked up some talented brake system experts in 2011 when Bosch sold its foundation brake operations and closed its facility in South Bend, so the company was ready to take its product offering to the next level. It began by improving the internal geometry of the current product line for higher flow and, therefore, faster recovery of the brake booster.

Listening to customers’ concerns about the aspirator, Nyloncraft conceived an advanced version with a shut-off valve, enabling more control of the air flow and closing some of the functionality gap between an expensive vacuum pump and simple aspirator.

As a result of efforts by the automakers to design a more efficient engine, the need arose for an additional source of vacuum, and this medium-sized automotive supplier identified the need as a niche that it could target.

The opportunity is not large enough to attract a stampede of competition, and Nyloncraft has created barriers to entry by accumulating 20 years of experience in designing, testing and manufacturing vacuum aspirators — as well as obtaining patent protection.

Its relationships with OEM personnel in braking and powertrain and the respect garnered through its former Bosch employees add an important human element, given the need for cooperation between supplier and customer in continuing to develop product advancements.

Ford was an early adopter of the device. Nyloncraft has been able to expand its customer base gradually over time, applying lessons learned from production for early contracts to achieve greater efficiency and lower manufacturing costs.

Suppliers that are successful have established themselves as someone’s preferred supplier by getting their foot in the door, cultivating the relationship and meeting the customer’s requirements consistently over a period of time. Discerning the customer’s needs, identifying a new application for existing knowledge or capabilities and commercializing an innovation all help to move a company to a different level on the spectrum of supplier sophistication and profitability.

Although a substantial amount of capacity was taken out of the automotive industry during the economic downturn, it remains the case that automakers and Tier Ones have a pool of generally similar companies to choose from.

If a supplier is clear about its sources of differentiation and can articulate how its combination of strengths serves the customer exceptionally well, that is helpful. Coming up with a product that illustrates an in-depth understanding of the customer’s needs and the technical and regulatory environment is a somewhat more unusual accomplishment.

The experience of Nyloncraft illustrates that it does not have to be a complicated new module or technology. Sometimes, a simple, clever component can be a game-changer.

 

Read 1503 times Last modified on Sunday, 10 May 2015 21:04

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