Entrepreneurs Bob Ligon and Gene Lane launched L&L Products in Romeo, Michigan, in the mid 1950s. They grew it into a successful business developing and manufacturing sealing tools and foams for the automotive industry. But when L&L chemists succeeded in converting their foam into a tough new material in the 1990s, the management saw a chance to branch out into a bigger market. The company decided to supply car makers with high-value structural composites that improve how cars fare in crashes.
The move was a big gamble. In order to meet design and testing requirements, L&L invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in new high-performance computers and modeling software, and hired a team of engineers to run them. “We carefully considered our technical expertise and domain knowledge and took the risk” says Steve Reagan, L&L’s computational modeling manager. “What is now called ‘predictive modeling’ began for us as full vehicle crash modeling. It’s how we began playing the virtual modeling game with the big guys.”
Playing With the Big Guys: Mid-size companies are the unsung heroes of the U.S. economy. Industrial-strength software and hardware installed at a GE advanced manufacturing center will help small and mid-size companies compete for jobs with large car makers.
The investment enabled L&L to design and test prototype parts for cars in development. Reagan says that a new car design can include as many as 700 stampings and 30,000 components and that car companies spend three years to develop a new model. “By the time they’re done, they’ve likely ran several hundred virtual simulations,” Reagan says. “You have to be able to speak the same language. When you bring them a virtual solution, they must be able to insert it into their modeling environment, get the same answer that you have told them you have gotten, on the same hardware and software.”
GE is now helping small and midsize American companies with access to such high-power computer modeling, but without taking L&L’s risks. The Advanced Manufacturing and Software Technology Center outside Detroit will house a predictive innovation center filled with powerful computers and industrial-strength software. Its goal is to spur manufacturing in the state and across the country. GE will run the center in partnership with the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. “When you talk about creating jobs and growing the economy in Michigan, these are the kind of long-range opportunities that will really make a difference,” says Rick Jarman, president and CEO of NCMS.
L&L’s Reagan says the center is needed. “For a small or medium company it would be very hard to take that kind of leap of faith,” he says. “Hardware, software, and technical expertise are all very real barriers.” Reagan says that instead of spending large amounts up-front, companies will be able to run modeling projects at the GE center for a fraction of the traditional cost and no upfront payment.
L&L’s investment has certainly paid off. The company now makes parts for the global automotive and aerospace industries. “People always ask what our return on investment was,” Reagan says. “I tell them it’s really a different category of thinking. For us, the return is half of all of our gross income. It’s mammoth. It’s unbelievable how it leveraged our capacity.”
Soon, the Advanced Manufacturing and Software Technology Center will open similar opportunities for other companies.