published Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

Denso on Fast Track

Firm’s operationsin Tennessee propel companyto key Ford recognition

Ford Motor Co. has revved up sales amid perceived quality gains with consumers, but instead of taking a victory lap it has moved to consolidate relationships with key suppliers like the Denso Corp.’s Athens, Tenn., plant.

The plant, known as DMAT, supplies exhaust sensors, fuel injectors, ignition coils, spark plugs and other engine parts for Ford and other automakers.

DMAT was one of only 11 suppliers in 2009 to earn Ford’s World Excellence Award, a recognition that the facility met or exceeded Ford’s quality and cost standards for the fuel injectors it produces for Ford, Denso said in a news release. DMAT has received the award in three of the past four years, a achievement Ford officials say is significant.

The DMAT plant plays a small but key role in Denso Corp.’s worldwide parts empire that started in 1949 as a Toyota spin-off, and since that time has grown to 184 subsidiaries with $32 billion in sales, employing 121,000 workers in 33 countries.

The 850 DMAT employees work at three interconnected facilities, the first of which was constructed in 1997 to produce oxygen sensors. The company built a second highly-automated plant in 1998 for fuel injectors, and further expanded its Athens footprint with a third facility in 2003, where it fabricates a slew of other products.

  • photo
    The Denso Manufacturing Athens Tennessee Inc. plant in Athens, Tenn., is shown.
    Photo by Tim Barber

Paul Pucci, a product development engineer for Ford, sees DMAT’s fuel injectors as a critical part of the automaker’s quest to comply with new government standards to make vehicles more fuel efficient. As part of Ford’s plan to meet ever stricter fuel mileage requirements, the company is currently expanding its direct injection production in cooperation with DMAT, he said.

“Ford is developing new products people will want to drive in terms of fuel efficiency and power, and Denso as our fuel system supplier is playing a key role,” Mr. Pucci said.

He believes that Denso has also had a hand in Ford’s recent gains in perceived quality, which has shown a 7.6 percent improvement since Fall 2009, according to a study by Automotive Lease Guide.

DMAT conducts computerized and hands-on checks to literally examine their parts under a microscope before they are sent out, a practice that catches mistakes before they leave the factory, managers said.

“As everybody can see, Ford quality has been substantially improved to the point we match or exceed the quality of our key competitors, and obviously Denso has played a major role in that,” Mr. Pucci said.

Katrina Hall, DMAT’s quality engineering general manager, said the company focuses on flexibility and automation to stay competitive.

“We try to design our lines to where we can produce several different variations of part types on the same line,” Ms. Hall said. “We also try to work with our customers on design well in advance of production.”

To help motivate employees, DMAT offers classroom instruction and technical training to help workers gain proficiency operating the complex automated production lines, according to Hugh Cantrell, general manager for administrative services.

“You hear about next generation manufacturing, we are definitely next-gen,” he said. “These jobs are mentally and physically challenging, but we’re really thankful to have a talented workforce.”

DMAT saw part sales dip along with auto sales in the past year, but managers are hoping for a strong 2010 as the economy picks back up.

“We definitely haven’t seen (sales) back to 2007 levels, but we’ve seen a recovery,” Mr. Cantrell said. “We’d love to hire some new folks, all we need is business.”

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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