Eaton Inoac is a leading manufacturer of color-matched plastic exterior trim products for the automotive industry, primarily spoilers but also a for bodyside moldings, claddings and their newest offerings, ground effects packages. David Soyka tours this accelerating niche business.
The longstanding joke is that Henry Ford said you could get his Model T in any color as long as it was black. As the mass assembly line has evolved to produce a wide variety of products in a variety of standardized configurations, consumers are demanding even more personalization, from the ring of their cell phones to the screen savers on their computers. The industry Ford helped pioneer is certainly no exception, and Eaton Inoac owes its success in large part to the fact that a large percentage of car owners want their vehicles to have some extra personality.
“One strong factor driving our success is the consumer demand for individualism. Car buyers don’t want their rides to look like everyone else’s and the auto makers are hard pressed to economically offer enough variety in their model lines to meet these wants.” notes Eaton Inoac Director of Sales and Marketing John McLean. “The solution is to offer optional products that can be added on at the dealer or a port installation facility to allow a customer to give his vehicle its own distinctive look. Developing and supplying distinctive and high quality exterior trim products such as spoilers and ground effects is where we excel and can help.”
Eaton Inoac is way ahead in this competition as the premier manufacturer of spoilers, those aerodynamic bumps on the back of the trunk that provide a racing look and feel. The Clinton Township, Mich., headquartered company has sales in excess of $100 million annually exclusively to OEMs; the most popular type of spoilers are high mounted wings which are typically blow molded then painted. Says McLean, “We are the largest and most competent player in the highly specialized OEM spoiler niche market.”
Supplying product that satisfies the ever-growing personalization trend and thus keeping sales from going to the estimated $26 billion dollar aftermarket is one of the OEM carmakers greatest challenges.
EIC is helping car companies accomplish this by developing and providing an increased variety of high quality exterior trim products.
Customers include transplants (Japanese companies with U.S. manufacturing facilities) and domestic auto manufacturers. According to McLean,” Eaton Inoac owns the largest share of OEM spoiler business at Ford, GM and all the major transplants including Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Subaru.” What accounts for this overwhelming market dominance? “Reputation, service, quality and reliability. After we design and develop a part we apply very specialized molding processes with superior paint quality to deliver parts unmatched in this industry,” McLean says. “Quality is a critical selling point. Quite often the paint quality on our part actually exceeds the vehicle it is going on.” Consumers are very hungry for new products to distinguish their vehicles and the OEMs are frantic to find competent sources to develop and produce products that will keep consumers and sales from going to the aftermarket. “There are lots of aftermarket companies looking for a piece of this pie but, while their prices may be cheaper, associating an OEM’s name with their quality is generally risky. With EIC, the auto manufacturer is assured of maintaining their reputation and providing the consumers high quality and the kind of styling customers are craving without having to leave the dealers showroom.”
How does Eaton Inoac achieve these high quality levels? McLean points to its Japanese heritage as a starting point. Originally founded in 1987 as a joint venture between the Japanese company Inoac and Aeroquip to supply Mazda U.S. parts, the business was imbued with the advanced Japanese manufacturing “kaizen” culture by its Japanese parent Inoac from it’s conception. “Very early in our history we became proficient in the Toyota Production System and even today we are still far ahead of most of our competitors in terms of design capability, process technology, and basic manufacturing culture. While most are still trying to play catch-up we continue to raise the bar. Our corporate culture is continuous improvement, in how to always do things better, make a better product and be more cost-efficient at it.” McLean points out.
That Eaton Inoac has also become the OEM’s prime advanced technical advisor and is often contacted to review and give advise on designs before they are released for production. “Most companies accessory engineering groups don’t have extensive design and development resources so they rely on us for help to support them with design and engineering as well as manufacturing,” McLean says. Eaton Inoac is capable of providing full design and manufacturing services, from conception through to production. Typical tooling time of a spoiler after a design is finalized is about 15 weeks.
In 1997, Eaton Corporation, an industrial manufacturer of auto, truck, fluid power and electrical components, bought Aeroquip and with that acquisition became a 51 percent owner. Shortly after the company name was changed to the Eaton Inoac Company. McLean terms the new partnership the best of both worlds in that it allows EIC to leverage the strength and backing of two large internationally recognized manufacturing leaders, Eaton and Inoac, yet maintain the entrepreneurial spirit of a small niche marketer. “We’ve got a very experienced management group here at EIC, and because we’ve remained small and focused, it’s given us the flexibility and responsiveness that you need to react quickly and be successful in this type of commodity,” McLean says.
While Inoac continues to provide the most current manufacturing technology Japan has to offer and a constant link to the Orient, the Eaton Business Lean System is providing innovative and fresh ideas that have jump started our improvement in many areas. ” McLean adds. “In the last two years in particular, we’ve seen significant improvements in our molding, sanding, post-op, and painting processes. He points out that, while there are other companies that can produce a spoiler, “nobody matches our capability and quality and we are dedicated to maintain this advantage. It’s a tough business but keeping focused on being the best and providing our customers the support and products they need has established us as the leader and keeps bringing them back.”
Currently Eaton Inoac employs about 750 people, and operates three manufacturing plants totaling 412,000 square feet. The largest is in Freemont, Ohio. The others are based in Livingston, Tenn., and Atlanta, Ga. These facilities are all recognized as state-of-the-art manufacturing centers. The Tennessee plant, for example, recently won the “Tennessee Quality Award,” for the third time and was previously recognized by Industry Week Magazine as one of the top 10 manufacturing plants in North America. Fremont, on the other hand, has been recognized by OSHA as one of only about 700 plants in the U.S. to achieve their VPP Star Certification.
So where do you go when you’ve already established yourself as “best of breed?” Well, no matter how good you are, you better keep focused on getting better or someone will pass you by when you least expect it.
“Again, continuous improvement is part of our culture. We grow and maintain our sales based on our reputation and we need to not only preserve that but improve upon it,” McLean says.” Along with being the best, a key strategy Eaton Inoac has as an entrepreneurial marketer is not to stray too far from its core competency but to develop other products that fill the needs of the vehicle personalization niche. “One product we’re aggressively developing are ground effects, those products that customize and visually enhance the ground line of a car,” he notes. There is a serious market need for a supplier that can supply these at low to mid volumes and OEM, not aftermarket quality levels; EIC is working hard to fill this niche.
McLean says these products may employ various molding processes such as injection, blow molding, vacuum forming or RIM and are then typically Class A painted. “Class A painting of large exterior trim parts of this type is a major core competency. It’s an area where we excel and are focusing much of our future. The vehicle personalization trend offers unique opportunities to develop new products in this area and growth for both the OEMs and us.
While Eaton Inoac continues its thrust forward to be a premier automotive supplier the company is mindful of many buzzwords in the industry among suppliers who like that they are “delighting” their customers. McLean prefers to think of EIC as “spoiling theirs.”