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Building Better Car Bodies with Plastic At Little Tikes

Conventional thinking would have it that the world’s most successful small car plant would be located either in Asia, Eastern Europe or South America. It’s not. Convention also would dictate that the most affordable small car on the market would not be made from plastic, but it is. Here’s how Little Tikes defies convention.
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The foundation for turning small car production on its head is taking place in Hudson, a small town 30 miles southeast of Cleveland, OH. While it would be the last place you’d expect to find the factory that can proclaim itself “the small car capitol of the world,” this town of 22,500 is home to the production line for the Cozy Coupe, a plastic-bodied vehicle that has remained in production by Little Tikes (www.littletikes.com) for more than 27 years with sales of more than 20 million units. Unlike its competition, which relies on complex engine technology and the latest infotainment systems to appease consumers, this vehicle runs on people power and has little more than two doors and four wheels, which are also made of plastic. So as the traditional automakers give in to the naysayer’s willing to dispel the possibilities of plastic-bodied, affordable vehicles, Little Tikes is proving that plastics can lead to longevity and profitability.

Domestic Production. Cozy Coupes are manufactured at the 600,000 ft2 Hudson plant using the rotational molding process. Resin is loaded into an aluminum cast mold, heated while the mold rotates on an arm to assure even thickness throughout each part, after which cooled air is used to cool the mold, and the finished part is removed. “The size of our parts requires us to use rotational molding because we need the parts to be very durable,” says Tom Fish, director of Design at Little Tikes for the past 20 years. “The rotational molding machines we use have four or five arms; at the end of the each arm are what we call a ‘spider’ that holds the aluminum cast molds.” Each mold is capable of producing enough parts to make eight Cozy Coupes every seven minutes. Here’s an insider secret: workers along the line use BernzOmatic blow torches—yes, the same sort of thing you can pick up at Home Depot—to smooth out parting lines after the finished piece is ejected from the mold; Fish recommends parents use the torch method if they find their child’s Cozy Coupe scratched after normal use. Annual output at Hudson averages 250,000 units with enough built-in capacity to make 500,000 units. Fish says an added benefit of rotational molding is it requires less investment compared to injection molding. He estimates new rotational molds can be constructed with a limited investment of $80,000, while injection molding tooling can cost $500,000 to modify. 

While the 525 workers at the Hudson plant produce the roof, body and doors for each Cozy coupe, the wheels, steering wheel and axles are outsourced to firms in Pennsylvania and other parts of the country: “We’re all domestic,” Fish says. Making a plastic car in America seems more than just a bit odd, especially when labor rates are lower in Mexico, Japan, China and Eastern Europe, but Fish says the Cozy Coupe’s size limits its offshore potential. “Once you get into shipping price-sensitive items larger than a cubic foot from Asia or Europe, it becomes more cost-effective to build them right here in the country. Plus, we are building a product that’s a little more higher end in terms of toys, and quality is a top priority.”

The Iconic Model. The Little Tikes engineering and design staff can make modifications to the product in as little as eight months, depending on the extent of the change. “We have an in-house design staff of about seven that works on changes using SolidWorks or ProEngineering software,” says Fish. While there have been minor modifications to the Cozy Coupe since its inception—including changes eight years ago to make the car easier to assemble—the basic design has remained the same, including the trademark yellow-and-orange color scheme. Fish compares the pressure of working on products like the Cozy Coupe to the design team who worked on the new Ford Mustang, saying both products are “icons” and need to pay homage to their history, while remaining relevant in today’s competitive marketplace. “We have to keep certain features no matter what we do, like the egg shape and the rear end like the old Lincoln Continental, those have to stay.” Since the Cozy Coupe has proven its longevity, Fish says the design team spends more time studying ways to reduce the production and tooling costs. “We tend not to modify the product too much, but we might do an exercise where we go once a year to see if we can get more cost out and what we can add,” he says. That’s especially true in the era of retailer like Wal-Mart, who demands their suppliers provide the lowest cost products. Additionally, other retailers ask for unique product design cues or features that will help separate their products from the mass-market retailers. “Toys ‘R’ Us, for example, may want something different that Wal-Mart can’t get, and those are some of the biggest challenges we face,” Fish says.

Beyond the Coupe. While the Cozy Coupe will likely continue on in its current form for quite some time—“We’re going to keep it the same as long as we can get away with it”—Little Tikes could potentially branch off into new vehicle segments in the future. The company already produces a pickup truck, which Fish says achieved sales of $15-million during its first year of production: “We literally had people within our organization arguing against the pickup truck idea because most of them drove Acuras and couldn’t understand the concept,” he quips. There are also convertible, princess and emergency responder versions of the Cozy Coupe on the market. Little Tikes also worked with GM’s Hummer brand to devise a plastic-bodied H2. What’s next? While Little Tikes just wrapped up the product development planning for 2007 and is working on new projects for 2008 and beyond, Fish says an SUV or minivan isn’t out of the question, adding the company is interested in working with traditional automakers to develop Cozy versions of their mass market vehicles, especially truck-based vehicles. “We could use their actual vehicle body styles for cues,” Fish says.



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