Frank Robinson, Product Line Director, Suspension Systems, BWI Group

Frank Robinson, Product Line Director, Suspension Systems, BWI Group

In this interview, Matthew Beecham talked with Frank Robinson, product line director, suspension systems, BWI Group, about how its damper business is shaping-up this year and customer feedback on the supplier’s adaptive suspension technology, known as MagneRide.

What are the main challenges facing damper suppliers in general – and BWI in particular?

Despite the steady economic recovery, there is still overcapacity and it is not distributed evenly. And so, in some parts of the world there is a shortage of capacity: China in particular. The rate of growth there may have declined, but it continues to set the pace in vehicle production.

The challenge in China is creating capacity for the right type of damper. Chinese consumers increasingly expect more sophisticated vehicles and China is exporting more to other markets. Vehicle manufacturers, whether they are a State Owned Enterprise, a joint venture or a private company, are demanding components that can sell internationally.

As a result, there is still a lack of capacity for dampers with the right levels of functionality, durability and reliability in China. BWI Group is addressing this with a new damper plant that we have constructed in the Fangshan district of Beijing that will supply five OEMs.

The other, usual challenges for suppliers are still present. When a company develops a new technology, a better cost base or improves its engineering services, it can win new business at the expense of another supplier, even in a stable market. Growth in Europe is not as strong as in China, but BWI Group’s customers are growing well and so is our suspension business in Europe. If a supplier is competitive on quality, technology, service and price it will win business.

What plans for investment in your suspension business do you have for this year? What plans for recruitment?

Last year in India BWI Group moved to a new facility near New Delhi in Gurgaon after producing dampers and struts in the country for many years. During 2012 we will continue to improve the equipment base in the plant, incrementally expanding capacity as our customers’ volume requirements increase. The same process of incremental improvement and expansion is underway at our facility in Poland.

At the same time, we are continuing to invest in the development of future suspension technologies, making passive dampers lighter weight and more intelligent. Our work on more advanced valves for passive dampers is enabling us to give passive suspensions some of the functionality of active systems.

How does BWI Group plan to further increase the competitiveness of its damper portfolio?

BWI Group has a full range of non-controlled twin- and monotube dampers and struts and also makes valve-based controlled dampers. Our adaptive suspension technology, MagneRide, combines the struts, damper, ECU and sensors to provide a complete suspension system.

To make our products competitive, we start with a best-cost manufacturing location for the market that each plant serves. Our damper production facilities in China, India, Poland and Mexico provide the right levels of cost and quality and are well positioned to serve the largest vehicle-manufacturing regions. In Luton, UK we assemble and supply complete suspension modules, just-in-time, to customers. As more vehicle manufacturers seek to simplify their final assembly, our expertise in this area will be a competitive advantage.

We also compete by being a better development partner to our customers. BWI Group was once a part of General Motors and has been a brake supplier for several decades. Our people know how to analyze vehicle-level and chassis-level issues better than most. They understand how the interaction between chassis components, modules and sub-systems can affect a vehicle’s road behaviour.
This enables us to provide solutions that can overcome or mitigate issues elsewhere in the vehicle. It is also allows us to provide the kind of partnership that our customers value highly.

We’re also working continuously to improve existing technologies and introduce products that satisfy new demands from the market. We have been steadily expanding the capabilities of our main technical centers in Shanghai, Tokyo, Paris, Poland and the USA.

As a global player, do you see future product requirements differing or converging in the various markets? In what ways?

We have already seen a shift in Chinese OEMs’ product requirements, driven by domestic competition and the need for international-level products for export vehicles. We expect this trend to continue and to strengthen as Chinese consumers become more demanding and to expect higher levels of quality and functionality.

We are also seeing a return to truly global vehicle programmes. In the past, some vehicle manufacturers have announced global platforms and programmes, but from a chassis perspective, there was little in terms of common specifications and products. As competitive pressures increase, OEMs are establishing more common requirements that are truly global.

How is the adoption of electronic suspension technologies progressing?

Advances in the electronics used in dampers have increased the level of stability and comfort for new vehicles, but it is still expensive compared with conventional technology. We are now starting to see manufacturers use the technology more effectively, integrating them into their brand’s DNA: the development, the positioning and the sales process. Achieving this level of acceptance is the hardest part of any technology’s introduction and can be the turning point in terms of its market penetration.

Further growth will come. In general, buyers are continuing to downsize, selecting smaller vehicles that have higher equipment levels. As a result, some market segments are subdividing, creating new types of vehicle that match their customers’ lifestyles more closely.

The increasing diversity of the crossover segment is evidence of this. Premium brands must create new models that offer either a superior driving experience within a tighter package or a different vehicle concept. More advanced passive suspension technologies and adaptive chassis systems will support this.

The remainder of this interview is available on just-auto's QUBE research service