A significant part of the in-cabin experience of a vehicle depends on the touch-points in the cabin. Constant interaction with these touch-points over a period of time requires them to exude a sense of quality. With increasing penetration of electronics in vehicles, these touch-points are now being deployed with technology beyond the mere operation of a function. Southco is one such company that is expanding its global presence on the back of its product portfolio comprising of more than 25,000 products, including latches and hinges.
A global leader in engineered access hardware, with operations in more than 30 countries, Southco has built a strong portfolio of products through its 70-year-old journey. Set-up as a specialty pipe manufacturer for the Pennsylvania oil industry in 1899, it was only in 1945 that Southco started manufacturing specialty fastener and latches, marking its entry into the segment that specialises in 'touch points' such as locks, hinges and handles.
In India, the company is headquartered in Pune, Maharashtra and carries out manufacturing at a plant in the same city. Recently, we made a trip to the plant and spoke to Veeresh Manrai, General Manager, Business Development, Indian Operations, Southco India Private Limited for a detailed understanding of its business in the country.
LOCAL SUPPORT STRATEGY
The company follows a local support strategy for its customers globally, and the flourishing Indian economy brought it to India. Operations in India started around a decade back, and the company today caters to various industries including automotive, aerospace, off-highway, railway, marine, healthcare and data centre enclosures.
From its fairly large portfolio of solutions, two key products in the Indian automotive market include glovebox and centre console latches, which have been used in recently launched vehicles such as the Mahindra TUV 300 and KUV 100, among other customers. These latches are claimed to be assembly-friendly, saving labour time and also help lower tooling investment, making it a better value proposition for its customers. Within latches, the single-point rotary latch and an offset single-point rotary latch constitute the two key products in India.
We also talked about Southco's dual-point latching, which is a newer offering and is known as the Coupler System. The system features a two-point, dependent pawl latching system, which retracts both pawls simultaneously, allowing flexibility in actuation styles, reducing the risk of false latching. There's a mid-sized coupler as well, which features a compact mechanism for supporting smaller applications such as centre consoles, cup holders and small compartments. Southco has designed the Coupler to be flexible, offering various actuation options such as push-button, lift-paddle, side-pull, locking, non-locking and electromechanical.
Southco follows a 'Total Programme Management' approach, wherein it offers all services from the design phase to final product. The company is now focusing on developing electronic locks and positioning solutions and wireless technologies, beyond its solutions for latching, fastening and positioning.
Positioning technology involves positioning hinges and display mounting solutions. Headrest solutions feature integrated torque hinges, which makes operation smoother and aids better positioning of the headrest. Torque devices are increasingly becoming popular due to the wide range of benefits they offer. This technology enables position control for centre-console hinging, wherein an occupant can hold a centre console lid or inner tray steady at any position, stop and lock the centre console lid into a pre-determined position and also benefit from the lesser effort required to operate the panels.
Explaining the technology further, Manrai told us that precision position control hinges use specially shaped bands or sickle torque elements that apply radial pressure against a shaft to create friction between the two surfaces. By utilising a variety of shaft and torque element combinations with different alloy steels, heat treating, lubricants, and assembly processes, these devices are able to deliver a wide range of capabilities with more precise tolerances for consistent torque control and long-lasting performance.
With an increasing focus of the global automotive industry on electronics, we discussed the electronic locking technologies by Southco and the difference they offer from the conventional solutions. Electronic access combines physical security with electronic intelligence to protect valuable assets and information. In automotive interiors, electronic locking mechanisms can be networked directly into a vehicle's electrical system to secure glove boxes, media bins and other storage areas. This not only improves the user-experience but it also enhances the interior styling. We were told that if required Bluetooth can also be combined with electronic locking technology to increase the security levels.
Our conversation about the company and its technology made it clear that Southco, although small in revenue terms in India, has a strong focus on developing the right technology. The same approach was also evident on the shopfloor. The plant is small in size, but is equipped with the latest technology. Product development or R&D in particular is primarily carried out in global centres with India providing critical information related to customer requirements. Globally, Southco has 17 manufacturing locations, including India.
The first piece of equipment we came across was a coordinate-measuring machine (CMM) by Nikon, which offers exceptional accuracy of up to one micron. In simpler measurement terms, one micron is equal to 0.001 mm.
We were shown the entire process of making the latches that are supplied to Indian customers such as Mahindra, Visteon, Ford and Tata Motors, among others. The manufacturing process starts from the injection-moulding machines, two of which are installed at the plant. One of them is an 80 tonne unit, while the larger one is 150 tonne. One of the key raw materials used as the base for the component is nylon. The raw material is first loaded into a bin loader and undergoes a dehumidifying process, which ensures no moisture is passed ahead in the manufacturing process.
The injection-moulding machines are hydro mechanical, making use of water for cooling purposes. Water is supplied to the machine from tanks outside the shopfloor. The plastic is heated in these machines to the point it changes form to liquid. After this, the liquid plastic is passed onto a mould, which is clamped in the clamping unit inside the machine. The company has 17 moulds presently and will continue to increase the count as the product portfolio continues to expand. Fully automatic in nature, these machines only require human interference for instructional purpose. Doing so not only reduces the labour requirement but also maintains a higher and consistent level of quality.
Post the clamping, the unit goes for the assembly process, which is a combination of automatic and manual processes. The line here involves a mix of locally-manufactured products and those that are imported and assembled here. All products supplied to Mahindra are manufactured locally but those used in the new Ford Figo Aspire compact sedan are imported from the UK and assembled in Pune.
With revenue of Rs 24 cr in 2015, Southco is still a small operation in India. Despite that, the company impressed us with their focus on technology. For something seemingly as simple as latches, the technology they already have and are working on for the future was quite surprising. The fact that the company has simple and proven products along with the expertise to scale-up to more demanding electronic systems, beckons well for its future.
The torque controlled systems too hold good potential as OEMs continue to add features from higher-end vehicles to mass-market ones. In India specifically, one can clearly see the rapid pace at which consumers are becoming aware of vehicle technology and finer details such as cabin experience.
In India, the company has over 40 employees presently and it expects to grow at a healthy rate in the coming years, primarily on the back of new products and technologies. It is positioned well in the market with potential and the right products, more importantly a wide range of products for all sorts of applications. It's this diversity of products that in our opinion will help the company grow at a healthy pace in the coming years, including achieving its stated 2016 revenue target of Rs 30 cr.
Text & Photo: Arpit Mahendra