Feature Stories Archive
Fabrication Business 'Humming' Along
Manufacturing and Trim Specialties Inc. is the
exclusive Tier 1 manufacturer of interior plastic
parts for AM General's civilian Hummer
ESA finds there's nothing
'hum'drum about manufacturing the interior components for
the civilian Hummers.
By Karen M.
Business is humming at ESA
Manufacturing and Trim Specialties Inc. As the exclusive
Tier 1 manufacturer of interior plastic parts for AM
General's civilian Hummer vehicles, the Williamston,
Michigan-based thermoformer has forged a unique path to
ESA's initial involvement
with AM General came about through its work as a sales rep
for another company. When that other company decided to stop
producing parts for AM General in 1994 and concentrate on
its core business, ESA President Brad Ebersole said the
company saw it as an opportunity to diversify its product
line, expand its capabilities and also further its
relationship with the automaker. The only problem was, ESA
had no prior experience in the thermoforming portion of the
"But AM General fully
supported us. We had never let them down before, and we
guaranteed we wouldn't do it to them now," reflects Ebersole
on that time. "We got the authorization in November, and by
Dec. 17, we had signed a lease on a building. By Jan. 7, we
were in full production."
ESA's first thermoformers
were single station Maacs with 21Ú2-foot by 3-foot shuttles.
In addition to supplying the machines, Ebersole says the
company also relied on Maac Machinery to train and educate
the ESA employees in all aspects of
and Trim Specialties Inc. is the exclusive Tier I manufacturer
of interior plastic parts for AM Gerneral's civilian Hummer
vehicles. These parts include: the upper and lower A and B
pillars, center windshield sets, rear windor sets, kick
panels, instrument panels, dashboards, front console panels,
door interior panels, gear shifter panels, glove compartments,
plus the horn button.
Today, ESA is a full service
thermoformer with added capabilities in vinyl wrapping,
trimming, assembly, engineering development and
The company uses a cell
system for manufacturing parts in its 30,000-square-foot
plant. ESA's 30 shop employees work in groups composed of:
trainees, middle level personnel (basic knowledge of machine
processes) and group leaders (experienced
Cut-to-size material is
purchased from sheet extruders and shipped directly to the
company. Although ABS and HIPS are the primary materials
used by ESA, the company also machines: acetates, acrylic,
acrylic/PVC, butyrate, polycarbonate, polyester, HDPE,
polyethersulfone, propionate, polypropylene, polysulfone,
rigid vinyl and rigid foam vinyl.
"We've set up a strategic
alliance where we work with one primary plastic house, one
primary vinyl house and one primary house for foam,"
Ebersole says. In keeping with its just-in-time philosophy
of manufacturing, the company will typically place a blanket
"number of pounds" order for materials from its suppliers
and then order the exact number of "bundles" a week prior to
production. "We have an average run of 40 to 60 parts, so
having the material in 50-piece bundles works well for us,"
Production is constant at
ESA, where a single job often involves a multitude of parts.
For the civilian Hummer (aka the Humvee), ESA manufactures
from high-temperature, high-heat grades of ABS the: upper
and lower A and B pillars (front and rear interior frames),
center windshield sets, rear window sets, kick panels,
instrument panels, dashboards, front console panels, door
interior panels, gear shifter panels, glove compartments
&emdash; even the horn button.
All parts are thermoformed
on one of six machines. In addition to the two
single-station Maac formers, ESA also has a 4-foot by 6-foot
Maac rotary and two Lamco rotary formers: a 4-foot by 6-foot
and a 6-foot by 10-foot with platens adjustable via
After the automotive
interior parts are formed, excess material is manually
trimmed. The parts are then sent to one of two Motionmaster
CNC routers equipped with carbide tooling for close
tolerance trimming and drilling of holes. All waterjet and
laser cutting is currently outsourced.
"We really promote our
state-of-the-art, real-world thermoforming capabilities. But
what really makes us unique, strong, is our capability to do
vinyl wrapping," Ebersole says.
Vinyl-wrapped components are
first hand sanded to remove any nubs which can telegraph
through the vinyl skin. Next, small "vent" holes are drilled
through the plastic substrate to allow any air to escape
during the forming process, thus ensuring a tight bond with
the vinyl skin.
Timing plays a critical role
in the next phase of the process. There is only a few
minutes leeway between the time when the plastic substrate
is first sprayed with a 3M heat-activated adhesive and the
adhesive sets. Within this narrow window of time, the
machine operators must insert the substrate into the rotary
former, allow time for the vinyl to heat to the optimal
temperature and then program the machine so that the vinyl
forms correctly onto the plastic substrate.
Up until a few months ago,
ESA also did all the back wrapping of the vinyl, a process
which Ebersole says is a very labor-intensive. It now works
with another Michigan-based company and subcontracts out
that portion of the job.
AM General's Hummer is a
deluxe 4x4 with a luxurious ( $60,000 to $100,000-plus)
price. Designed to withstand a variety of temperatures and
terrains, the Hummer's exterior, heat-treated aluminum alloy
body panels are bonded together then riveted, similar to an
aircraft's construction. The interior panels are
thermoformed and machined from high-temperature, high-heat
grades of ABS by ESA Manufacturing and Trim Specialties,
which then vinyl wraps the components under strict quality
Designed for the adventurous
driver, the vehicle has 16-inches of ground clearance, steep
angles of approach (72°) and departure (37.5°),
and a Central Tire Inflation System, allowing the driver to
simply flip a switch on the dashboard and adjust the tire
pressure while on the move to adapt to the various terrains.
luxury ATV priced between $60,000 to $100,000, the
civilian Hummer features heat-treated aluminum
alloy body outer panels, with interior components
made from ABS. ESA is the exclusive supplier of the
Hummer's interior plastic
Other features of the Hummer
include: its low center of gravity, 130-inch long wheelbase,
72-inch track width, 37-inch tires and TorqTrac 4 technology
which monitors the rotational speed of each wheel "to
automatically reduce tire spin on severe terrain or slippery
surfaces by applying the brake to the spinning wheel,
allowing the differential to redistribute torque to those
wheels with traction."
The Hummer is available in
five models: two-door hard top, four-door hard top,
four-door open top, four-door wagon and four-door slant
components for the Hummer continues to be the majority of
ESA's business, Ebersole says he would like to expand into
"We're trying to diversify
so that we don't have to worry about cyclical markets or
"During our first two years,
100 percent of our business was for AM General. Today, it's
more like 70 percent. Although the Hummer is pretty
recession-proof, I'd like to see us bring in other business
so that that figure is down to 30 percent," he says.
Some of that business is
coming from other auto makers such as Navistar, for which
ESA has manufactured items such as access doors for fuse
boxes, or through specialty jobs, such as the barrier walls
and trunk dividers ESA has designed and manufactured for
police cars of nearby area city departments.
As a Tier 2 supplier for the
marine industry, ESA has fabricated dashboards, shifter
panels and glove boxes.
"We also manufacture a
variety of items for the craft industry. We'll develop the
molds and make models for stained glasswork, or the molds
for light boxes like Tiffany lamps," he explains. Diamond
Tech International is just one of the companies for which
ESA manufactures plastic molds and parts.
For the office supply
industry, ESA has contracted with Deflecto to manufacture
literature holders out of HIPS, which are then sold through
retail outlets such as Office Max and Staples.
"We've even done specialty
items like theft-proof mailboxes," Ebersole adds.
Quality control is an
important part of ESA's successful manufacturing philosophy.
While group leaders maintain the general manufacturing
standards within their individual cell areas, an ESA quality
control engineer conducts a part's inspections at every
station every 20 to 30 minutes.
"Some might think that's
excessive. But a production run might have a 40- to 60-part
cycle, so it may only be in the machine for two hours total.
If you inspect less than that, you might not be getting a
good sample," Ebersole says.
Of the three full-time
quality control engineers, one remains on the shop floor at
all times, conducting inspections at the various work
stations. Another checks measurements on parts with a Faro
arm and keeps control of the paperwork, while the third QC
engineer "orchestrates the big plan," Ebersole explains. A
Macbeth Judge II is also used in-house to ensure color
consistency on parts from one job order to the
Maintaining a high level of
quality control goes hand-in-hand with ESA's goal of earning
QS 9000 and QS 9002 certification. Ebersole says the company
expects to earn both certifications within the
ESA Manufacturing and Trim
Specialties Inc. now has a Web site promoting its custom and
high production design, engineering and manufacturing
ESA's ability to manufacture "everything from items that are
little or big, easy or hard. We want to show that we're not
pigeonholed into one market," says Brad Ebersole, company
Although the majority of the
products manufactured currently are for the automotive
market, ESA is also a Tier 1 and Tier 2 supplier to the
marine, craft and office supply industries.
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