It’s being heard more and more by manufacturers seeking to be full-service suppliers to their OEMs: Tell us what you need and we’ll develop the system. At HI-LEX, the challenge has been met by incorporating test-proven, high-quality engineering expertise into a product development plan that goes beyond what competitors offer. HI-LEX, for the last 26 years, has produced for its clients a durable line of cable systems, providing system solutions and quality assurance in every part.Begun 26 years ago as a part of TSK Cable Systems, HI-LEX develops and markets products for two distinct vehicle markets: automotive and marine/recreational. Says Ed Barry, vice president of sales and marketing for automotive cables, the auto end of the business (founded as the American component of TSK) was initially established to supply product to the Big Three auto makers, as the transplants came to North America. HI-LEX did indeed become a supplier to the big auto manufacturers.
The marine/recreational vehicle segment – known as specialty cables – was founded in 1990 as a natural extension of automotive cable production. This segment, explains Ernie Waterhouse, vice president of the specialty cable division, also serves the Tier II automotive market by manufacturing cables used in automotive seats, cruise control, tailgate systems, motorcycles, boats and personal watercraft. “A lot of the same technology and needs exist in the recreational market as in the automotive market,” Waterhouse explains. However, the advantage for specialty cables is quicker turn-around time. Traditionally, an automotive project, from time of bid to completion, takes anywhere from three to four years. Reaction time for the markets served by specialty cables is much quicker, says Waterhouse. “It’s basically four to five months from start to finish,” he says.
In the last five years, Waterhouse further explains, quality and pricing expectations from customers in the specialty cable division have mirrored automotive, especially as far as adhering to QS 9000 standards, keeping costs down and becoming more efficient. But the overall new business attitude at HI-LEX is a combination of re-applying technologies to new systems while becoming more solution integrated.
“Our customers expect us to work with other suppliers to provide an entire system,” says Barry. “We can satisfy all cable needs,” adds Waterhouse. “That’s one of the advantages of being a full line cable supplier; we can make light-duty all the way to heavy-duty.”
Strategy for Change
As HI-LEX continues to produce and market the most reliable cables and cable components in the industry, it also must be mindful of changes within the industries it serves: electronic controls. Take, for example, the planned elimination via electronics – still some years down the road – of the shift and brake mechanisms to make room for gadgets such as telephones and cup holders. The cable systems manufacturing market, says Barry, must implement a strategy to respond to this change which will eliminate the need for a cable control system. “We are taking the necessary steps to position ourselves as a survivor in this market by meeting the customer requirements whether they be cable or electronic controls,” says Barry.
Those investments include constant upgrades to the company’s three plants, including two in Michigan and one in Queretaro, Mexico. A plant in Battle Creek, Michigan of 140,000 square feet employs 425 people and includes specialty cable sales, engineering, manufacturing and testing capabilities. Queretaro, which makes nearly half the volume of automotive cables, measures 100,000 square feet and employs 600 people. In addition, HI-LEX has a window regulator assembly plant in Litchfield, Mich. The Troy, Mich., Automotive Center employs about 30 people in sales and cable engineering and another 30 in window regulator engineering.
“We rely on TSK for much of the cable research and development. However, our Troy facility also maintains a staff in research and development,” says Barry, who also adds, “TSK’s worldwide manufacturing gives us the capability to service domestic European customers, as well as those in South America. We can service the customer wherever he is; that makes a difference.”
Products and Profits
So far, HI-LEX’s profits bear out its ability to manufacture durable cable systems as well as service the customer. With annual sales at $50 million for automotive cable and at $37 million for specialty cable, the company has become well established in bringing top-level products to market.
Among those products are push-pull control cables for mechanical motion transfer. HI-LEX also manufactures mechanical control cables for a wide variety of automotive applications. Cables control up to 17 functions in automobiles, including the hood lock, the seat belt retractor, the transmission shift, the clutch, the fuel, the filler door and the parking brake, etc.
HI-LEX window regulators offer a solution for those hard-to-solve weight-reducing problems in automobile and truck doors. HI-LEX cables also meet the demanding motion transfer problems for trucks and tractors.
On the marine/recreational end, HI-LEX manufactures a complete line of marine steering systems, single – and dual – shift controls, and cables. HI-LEX cables for marine applications feature patented, oil-impregnated liners that provide superior lubrication in corrosive environments.
All in the Quality
In the area of quality assurance, HI-LEX is second to none, setting in place standards that have been duplicated throughout the industry. These standards for excellence include employee participation and teamwork through all facets of the production cycle. Statistical problem – solving design, as well as regular employee/management meetings and specific job-related training, ensures that the quality assurance plan is functional at every step of production.
Barry considers this a critical component of the manufacturing process – especially in the world of e-business where, generally speaking, potential customers tend to judge a product purely by price and not by the degree of engineering backing that product.
“Most cables are considered commodities; people think they can just order them through e-business by the price,” Barry says. “But they really need to look at what’s backing that company: the technology, the service, the engineering.”