Ontario-based Canadian General-Tower has grown with the transportation industry, evolving from a wagon-wheel supplier to the recognized leader in the automotive interior trim business. Further, its innovative coated fabric and films has carried it into industrial markets. Dan Harvey reports on where CGT has been and where it’s headed.
Canadian General-Tower (CGT) has been involved in the transportation business ever since wagon wheels cut tracks across North America and the expanding United States territory.
The historical saga begins in the 1860s, with a company called the Victoria Wheel Works, the CGT antecedent that helped provide the emerging continental transportation trade with its first legs. Through the ensuing century and a half, the company kept up with transportation development, taking on new capabilities as required by industry evolution, and shifting focus from vehicle exterior to interior.
“CGT is now a world leader in the automotive interior trim business,” reports Patrick Diebel, vice president of advanced technology. “That currently comprises 75 percent of our business.”
As Diebel’s count suggests, CGT has directed its innovative drive in other directions. The remaining 25 percent of its business involves the manufacture and distribution of industrial products, such as its renowned swimming pool liners.
In both the automotive and industrial arenas, CGT has become the leading producer of vinyl coated fabrics and films – custom formulating and calendering thermoplastic sheeting, and finishing its products with printing, lamination and embossing technologies to meet customers’ unique design specifications.
FROM WHEELS TO RUBBER AND BEYOND
CGT takes great pride in being an innovative, problem-solving organization. It applies these capabilities to its customers’ ever-changing requirements as well as its own needs, as market circumstances dictate. Enduring beyond the wagon-wheel era, the company invested heavily in natural rubber processing technology during the early part of the 20th century. “That took us into rubber products such as exterior roofing for early automobile models,” relates Diebel.
However, World War II and an accompanying rubber shortage compelled CGT to experiment with vinyl. “We converted our manufacturing processes from rubber-based to PVC based,” informs Diebel.
The adaptable organization subsequently developed a line of vinyl films, sheeting and coated fabrics for automobile components. Now, the company is the leading North American supplier of flexible polymer cover stocks for automotive-industry customers throughout the world. But with its extensive experience, innovative nature and technological savvy, the company also secured leadership positions in various industrial markets, thanks to its innovative pool lining, roofing,
decking, containment, stationary and pond liner products.
The one constant through all of the evolution and transition has been ownership. CGT has remained in the hands of the Chaplin family of Cambridge since the early 1900s. “We’re now operated by the family’s fifth-generation,” reports Diebel.
CGT has produced coated fabrics for the automotive industry since 1928. Today, 85 percent of all cars and light trucks produced in North America contain soft interior trim products comprised of CGT products. The company’s output includes thermoplastic automotive seat coverstock, door panel coverstock and instrument panel coverstock. Recently, CGT developed a new application called Protein Leather®, a coverstock designed for seating surfaces, door trim, instrument panels, steering wheels, consoles and shift knobs. Its natural ingredients make it appear, feel and act just like real leather. Indeed, with its comfortable feel, superior moisture absorption and release properties, it is the most leather-like product available to auto designers and materials engineers, according to the company. Further, Protein Leather is more durable and versatile and less expensive than the real thing.
In addition, anticipating customer demand for PVC alternatives, CGT also developed a complete range of substitutes made from engineered thermoplastic olefins (TPO) that boast enhanced performance and recycling characteristics.
As far as its industrial products, CGT prides itself on being North America’s leading manufacturer of premium printed vinyl fabric for above-ground and in-ground swimming and commercial pool liners. CGT also manufactures thermoplastic single-ply roofing membranes for the industrial, commercial, institutional and residential markets; reinforced thermoplastic single-ply decking material; primary and secondary containment materials, and aquaculture, nontoxic pond liners that support the growth of fish and vegetation.
ADVANCED MANUFACTURING PROCESSES
CGT has 1,000 employees and a million square feet of manufacturing space in North America. Products come out of two state-of-the-art facilities, located in Cambridge and Toledo, Ohio. “Each has 500,000 square feet of production space,” informs Diebel.
To manufacture PVC film, the company employs a calendar process. “That’s followed by a print process that applies the top finish,” explains Diebel. “The top finish provides the color control
and the abrasion requirements that protect the film, and it enables us to add any inks or decorative prints.”
On the automotive side, the next step is the coating line. “This adds a PVF foam layer and a fabric layer to the product,” Diebel says. “The product is then sent to our tier one customers – a group that includes major players such as the Lear Corporation – who cut and sew it to make seat covers for vehicles.”
For the eventual production of other products, film is sent to another production line, where it undergoes a lamination process. “This places a polypropylene foam to the film, which can either be a PVC or a TPO. The result would be used for molded applications,” explains Diebel. “Again, we send it to our tier one customers, who place it in their molding processes to make items such as instrument panels, door panels, glove boxes, and consoles. Essentially, anything that comes out of a molding process can be created with our material.”
A leading supplier of automotive products, CGT developed strong, lasting relationships with the major original equipment manufacturers in North America and Asia. Further, the company has
developed color-matching expertise that positioned it as the color master source for the North American automotive interior industry.
On the industrial side, CGT produces rolled goods that it ships to its customers, who then convert it into whatever shape, form or function is required, adds Diebel. “We calender PVC film and ship it out the door to tier one customers, who use it in the field. In the construction market, for roofing product, we calender two films, take them to a laminator and add a fabric or scrim to the product.”
The company’s range of reinforced sheeting for the commercial single-ply roofing market is noted for durability and reliability, ease of installation and maintenance, high reflectivity and energy efficiency. Its light weight allows for architectural freedom of design, and it comes in a wide variety of colors.
“On the pool side, we calender the film and place a decorative print, then ship it to tier one customers who produce pool liners from the product,” says Diebel, whose company’s pool products are characterized by superior design and color print quality.
CGT has set industry standards with its ISO/TS 16949 Quality System. Further, customers’ concerns about environmental issues have driven CGT to develop alternate materials. “We clearly understand their desire to recycle, reuse and reduce. We’re fully supportive of the ‘green’ movement and we’ve created a product called Vehreo, a green product for the automotive industry that’s recycled from a variety of materials that go into the textiles and film that we use,” says Diebel.
Innovations related to material formulation are key to CGT’s success. The company continually reinvests resources into product diversity. “For instance, we’ve come up with a trademarked product called Aeolis,” Diebel points out. “It’s a breathable vinyl that makes for a more comfortable seat. With its breathable characteristics, Aeolis prevents a vinyl seat from becoming too hot.”
STEERING INTO THE FUTURE
Diebel reports that the company’s plans for future growth focus on expanding its global presence, and it has already taken substantial steps in that direction. “Along with our Cambridge and Toledo facilities, we’ve established manufacturing agreements and sites in Shanghai, China, as we’re looking to become the lead supplier of our types of products in the Asia market,” he says.
CGT has also formed a business unit to develop the European market, adds Diebel. “Thus, we have identified the three continents where we want to be the leaders: North America, Europe and Asia,” he says.
The company has installed the infrastructure to develop those markets, and it anticipates that it will only require a few years to assume the desired leadership positions. Judging from CGT’s past performance and accomplishment, that seems a perfectly reasonable forecast – based on concrete evidence as opposed to wishful thinking.