Webasto leads in sunroof market

Lexington, KY – Many American cars have sunroofs that were made here in Lexington at Webasto Roof Systems. Located off Georgetown Road on Innovation Drive, the Webasto plant has two buildings that total about 300,000 square feet. Production began in 1998.
“We are the largest. We have about 50 percent of the market,” said Mark Frey, who came from Canada a year ago to serve as plant manager. “Some of our customers are Mercedes, Nissan, Ford, Honda Toyota, Hyundai, Kia, VW, and GM.”
The Lexington facility is one of four Webasto manufacturing plants in North America, all divisions of a privately held international firm. The company’s main office is in Germany, and it has factories in several countries, including China, Mexico and Korea.
In 1901, Wilhelm Baier founded the company to make bicycle parts. Baier’s descendants still own what has grown into an international corporation with two divisions, one that makes products for the car industry and one that produces heating and air conditioning systems.
Webasto’s name comes from its founder’s name (“we” and “ba”) and from Stockdorf (“sto”), the town in Bavaria where Baier established his company.
At Webasto’s Lexington plant, with three shifts operating, it takes about 700 employees to turn out enough sunroofs to meet the demand from car makers. All of the sunroofs produced here will be installed by car manufacturers in their new cars. (Webasto has an after-market store in Louisville for people who want sunroofs added to their cars. That addition costs about $800 to $1,500.)
“We do two types,” explained Frey. “The panorama roof – whole glass, moveable or fixed. The regular tilt or slide (a moveable glass section surrounded by a regular steel roof), and we build more that tilt.”
The design of a sunroof is specific for each car manufacturer’s make and model of car. A car maker begins working with Webasto two or more years before the particular model of car will go into production.
Webasto’s research and design engineers use the specifications the manufacturer gives them to create possible designs, and then they build prototypes. When the car maker selects the design for the sunroof for the car, then the process of production can start.
“Typically it takes two years to launch a new product,” Frey said.
Webasto’s skilled workers assemble the sunroofs with components from suppliers in Kentucky and around the world. Everything they need comes in by truck.
“We get glass from as far off as Spain, but we also use a local Kentucky supplier, Pilkington,” Frey said.
More than 100 parts – including the steel frame, tempered glass and mechanical components related to opening and closing – go into a car’s sunroof. When something disrupts a supplier’s production, such as the earthquake in Japan, Webasto is affected.
The earthquake in Japan “absolutely did affect us,” Frey said. “We put our temporary work force into a low-skill area temporarily. We were pretty lucky; our purchasing team bridged the gap.”
“The biggest challenge is always to keep the plant clean and safe. The second is always (maintaining) quality,” Frey said. “With all the parts we get, supplier quality is a huge challenge.”
If not caught by Webasto’s inspectors, parts that are slightly off-size can cause wind noise or water leakage after the sunroof is installed in the car. Customers don’t want sunroofs with even tiny scratches or cracks on the glass.
It takes 15 to 20 different people, depending on automation, to produce a sliding sunroof, about 12 to 15 for a tilt type, and twice that number for a panorama (full glass) sunroof.
Another challenge is complying with environmental regulations. Webasto manages storm water onsite with two retention ponds that have created a wildlife habitat. The company is certified as meeting ISO 14001, the gold standard for manufacturing facilities.
“We follow certain procedures to ensure we’re having minimal impact on the environment,” said John Gragg, Webasto’s commercial manager, Kentucky operations.
“We recycle 95 percent of our waste,” he added. “We’re trying to eliminate anything going to the landfill.”
Like other manufacturing companies, Webasto has had to deal with the challenge of the recession. Frey said that the transition back to a strong economy “has been fairly robust in the last six months.”
Webasto’s current and near future projects include sunroofs for the new M Class Mercedes, the Nissan Sentra Maxima, the Nissan Rogue and the Ford Edge. Those orders mean that the company’s slogan, “Feel the drive,” will be experienced by more and more drivers.

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