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Greencastle plant key in Ford's environmental movement

March 3, 2012

An auto-parts manufacturer in Greencastle is at the forefront of an unusual environmental effort initiated by one of its biggest customers.

Luxembourg-based International Automotive Components Group, whose North American headquarters is in the Detroit suburb of Southfield, has tapped its plant west of Indianapolis to manufacture a door bolster for Ford Motor Co. using natural materials.

Most interior auto parts, including door bolsters—or arm rests—are made from oil-based resin. But Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford Motor Co. is turning to a greener alternative, the kenaf plant, to make bolsters in its 2013 Escape model.

Production is slated to begin this month, after the plant completes several test runs, said Bud Harris, its technical services manager.

“We’re really excited because it adds one more thing that the Greencastle facility can offer for IAC to its customers,” he said. “It increases our versatility.”

Kenaf is a tropical plant similar to bamboo and related to cotton. Native to Africa, it’s adapted to grow in the southern United States and parts of California. Fibers harvested from kenaf have a range of uses and are found in rope, paper and building materials such as fiberboard and insulation.

Ford anticipates the eco-friendly material will offset the use of 300,000 pounds of oil-based resin per year in North America. Kenaf, which will be blended with polypropylene, should reduce the weight of the door bolsters 25 percent, translating to better fuel mileage.

The project for Ford ultimately should churn out 2 million bolsters annually to be installed in 500,000 of the four-door Escape SUVs.

The Greencastle plant runs three shifts five days a week and employs 400 workers. But the additional work from the Ford bolster and other new, unrelated jobs should enable IAC to recall workers from short- and long-term layoffs, Harris said.

More than 200 employees were let go from the Greencastle plant when it lost two contracts in late 2010, the company said at the time in a letter to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development.

IAC’s program with Ford still is relatively unknown outside core circles, but should help Indiana reinforce its status as a manufacturing leader, said Patrick Bennett, vice president of environment, energy and infrastructure at the Indiana Manufacturers Association.

“Typically, the greening takes place in energy uses,” he said. “They start at energy consumption, with efficiency in motors, so it’s certainly a good thing for Indiana.”

IAC’s involvement in the kenaf project with Ford started about two years ago when Ford asked the auto-parts supplier to design and manufacture the part. Much of the design phase occurred at IAC’s engineering laboratories in Michigan.

The bolster encompasses about a third of the door and, with the kenaf, needs to be strong enough to meet federal mandates for side-impact tests.

IAC operates 33 North American plants and selected the Greencastle facility to make the new bolster because it’s a high producer of vehicle doors.

More important, though, the location is the only IAC plant equipped to make bolsters with natural-based components, such as wood stock. Bolsters typically are made from an injected molding or wood stock.

An IAC spokesman said the company invested a “significant” amount of money in the facility to prepare for the March launch but couldn’t be more specific.

Much of IAC’s experience in renewable materials is limited to its operations in Europe and India, where natural fibers are more prevalent in manufacturing, said Mark Hayes, an IAC product engineer who helped design the bolster.

Overall, IAC has 73 plants in 15 countries.

“Ford is definitely driving the ship right now,” he said. “But worldwide, they’re far behind Mercedes and BMW that target [renewable materials] in trunk areas.”

Even so, Ford is making a push with its 2013 Escape. In addition to the kenaf, soy foam will be in the seats and head restraints, and carpeting material will consist of recycled plastic bottles. Ten pounds of scrap cotton from the manufacturing of denim jeans, and recycled tires, will be found in other parts of the vehicle.

Ford said the new Escape will be 85-percent recyclable at end-of-life.•

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