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Sunday, 18 September 2016 16:15

Going Plush: West Michigan suppliers eye opportunities as automakers push upscale interiors

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West Michigan-based automotive suppliers are helping automakers increase focus on the interiors of their vehicles. Coating technology such as Tessera, developed by Plastic Plate LLC, a division of Grand Rapids-based Lacks Enterprises Inc., allows for textures and patterns simulating wood grain or stainless steel without the need for veneers. West Michigan-based automotive suppliers are helping automakers increase focus on the interiors of their vehicles. Coating technology such as Tessera, developed by Plastic Plate LLC, a division of Grand Rapids-based Lacks Enterprises Inc., allows for textures and patterns simulating wood grain or stainless steel without the need for veneers. Courtesy Photo

As automakers have invested in high-profile technologies and lightweighting, they’ve also started to pay more attention to the place in their vehicles where drivers spend the most time: the interiors. 

While quality leather, wood veneers and contrast stitching have long served as differentiators between vehicle classes, drivers’ preferences and increased technology content in cars have pushed upscale interiors into lower-priced segments. According to auto industry sources, the result is that end users will have more options for interior customization. For West Michigan manufacturers, this also translates into additional opportunities to supply upscale finishes, trim and other interior components to more vehicles. 

“The consumer spends most of their time in the vehicle, so they want to see some of those upscale finishes on the interior since they do spend most of their time touching and feeling the car,” said Ryan Lacks, director of sales and marketing at Plastic Plate LLC, a division of Grand Rapids-based Lacks Enterprises Inc. 

In Lacks’ experience, high-quality trim components formerly reserved for luxury models have started moving downmarket to lower-end vehicles. For example, Plastic Plate coats trim pieces in the Chrysler 200 with its Spinelle coatings, which the company considers its high-end finish, he said. 

Plastic Plate uses its electroplating process to coat a variety of interior components including door panels, consoles and steering wheel bezels. 

Elsewhere in the vehicle interior, Holland-based Motus Integrated Technologies LLC, a private equity-backed firm that purchased Johnson Controls Inc.’s automotive visor, headliner and overhead systems business in 2014, has also benefited from automakers putting more emphasis on upscale interiors. 

While it’s unlikely the company’s headliner and visor business will be directly affected by the trend toward higher-end interiors, Motus’ armrest and door panel division will benefit, said Chris Hall, the supplier’s vice president of corporate strategy. 

“It gives us more places to compete,” Hall said. “Typically, your higher-end vehicles are going to have your stitching and wrapping. I think we’re seeing that move into mid-level vehicles and lower.”

Overall, the style trends in automotive interiors are gravitating toward making it feel more home-like, Hall said. 

To do so, automakers are moving away from injection molded and other plastic interior components in favor of more leather wrappings and textured trim pieces. They’re also integrating more black metallic, earth tones and bronze finishes in their interior components, sources said. 

Supplier executives in West Michigan hope that automakers’ push to upscale interior materials will provide new market opportunities for their companies.

“Interior will hopefully become a growing part of our business,” Lacks said. 

As a whole, Lacks Enterprises, which makes grilles, exterior and interior trim, and decorative wheel coverings, generates approximately $550 million in annual sales and employs 2,850 workers, the majority of whom are located across its 20 facilities in the Grand Rapids area. 

AN EVOLVING BUSINESS 

As much as interior styling has evolved in recent years, automotive suppliers still expect automakers to focus on developing the vehicle cockpit. 

Already, automakers have moved to integrate textured interior components — previously reserved for luxury vehicles — into more accessible models. 

The trend toward textured finishes is something that Grand Rapids-based Spectrum Industries Inc. is betting on to drive its business globally. 

The company recently developed its RAYN technology to coat components with a simulated patterned or textured finish — such as a porous wood grain or carbon fiber — without using a veneer. RAYN also allows the company to coat selective areas of a part, driving down costs, said President Kevin Bassett. 

“We’re having a lot of interest in the marketplace because it can create a technical pattern,” Bassett said, noting the firm’s first OEM application will debut later this year.

Spectrum plans to license the technology to manufacturers in China, Germany, Japan and elsewhere as part of a global expansion strategy, he said. 

RAYN and Spectrum’s other coating technologies give automakers more choices in developing appearance packages for their customers, according to Bassett. 

“Automakers are trying to cater to more options (and) more packages, which gives someone like us greater visibility and greater potential in the market,” he said. 

Spectrum also recently acquired a more than 45,000-square-foot space at 5265 Kellogg Woods Dr. SE in Grand Rapids that it plans to use for warehousing and assembly work. The company employs approximately 400 workers in Grand Rapids and generates around $45 million in annual sales. 

For its part, Plastic Plate also offers a textured coating dubbed Tessera, which allows the company to coat a large single interior component such as a door panel in a way that makes it look like multiple components. Instead of having a door panel consisting of several separate components, suppliers prefer a single piece because it offers more consistency and reduces the possibility of squeaks, Lacks said. 

In addition to textured interior trim, Plastic Plate also sees a market opportunity to tune its coatings to match ambient lighting in the vehicle, Lacks said. The company has partnered with a lighting manufacturer to develop interior lighting that accentuates its chrome and other trim products. 

“(Ambient lighting is)  becoming a larger influence on the interiors of vehicles,” Lacks said. “Especially at night, it becomes a better way to show trim pieces and the interiors of vehicles through light.”

As automakers integrate new technologies into their vehicles, interior component manufacturers will need to evolve to meet industry trends. The onset of disruptive technology such as autonomous driving will help shape automotive interiors in the years to come as drivers are able to focus less on actual driving and more on the content inside their vehicles, Lacks said. 

“The business is evolving, and I think the OEMs are recognizing what the consumer wants,” he said. “We’re trying to adapt our business around what we believe the consumer wants in the future. We believe that helps us sell a better product and helps the OEM sell a better vehicle that consumers want and are happy to have.” 

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John Wiegand

Staff writer

[email protected]

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