More MBS Coverage TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Yes, automotive suppliers have troubles. Fred Keller's answer isn't “cut costs” or “get lean.”

The chairman and CEO of plastics supplier Cascade Engineering of Grand Rapids, MI, says “go sustainable.”

Keller's uplifting message at the Management Briefing Seminars here is that although suppliers are barraged with problems, there may be no better time to seek opportunities that can lift an entire organization. One opportunity, he insists, is to join the auto industry's campaign for sustainability.

Keller says it is up to the auto industry, and the nation as a whole, to do something about energy consumption.

Cascade's Fred Keller promotes efforts to recycle plastics.

Although the auto industry is pumping up its efforts to make vehicles that use less energy, Keller insists the initiatives, so far, are “nothing like we've done (as an industry) with 'quality' or 'lean.'”

Suppliers certainly can't forget about their current issues, but Keller says they, and their customers, need to be involved in the quest to enhance the sustainability efforts of the auto sector.

“Frankly, I think the supply base needs a new challenge other than mere survival,” he says.

Keller founded Cascade in 1973 as a small injection molding operation with six employees and now presides over a plastics manufacturing and engineering company that employs 1,200. In his company's own current travails he sees the opportunity of which he speaks.

Natural gas, vital to the production of many plastics, including heavily used polyethelene, has doubled in price over the last 18 months, Keller says.

The nation directs a considerable amount of natural gas to the production of electricity, Keller says, when in fact the resource might be better used for plastic products that, at the end of their life cycles, then could be burned to generate electricity.

He says the plastics and auto industries should increase efforts to improve the recyclability of plastics to enhance the value of the energy used to produce them. The difficulty now, he says, is “the recoverability of the materials from scrap. In the U.S., we are somewhat limited.”

Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp. and DaimerChrysler AG, under the auspices of the U.S. Council for Automotive Research (USCAR), formed a Vehicle Recycling Partnership in 1991 to address many of the issues Keller notes.

Keller says the U.S. can take cues from Europe, which has pushed aggressive vehicle recyclability mandates. He says such initiatives require cooperation from OEMs and suppliers, and that suppliers can increase their value to the industry by being proactive.

“It's important for us (suppliers) to be the incubators of solutions,” Keller says.