HILLSBOROUGH, NH—Folks in this rural town have seen the light. Not only that, but they understand light and have been creating it for decades at Osram Sylvania’s state-of-the-art automotive research and manufacturing facility.
The company prides itself on its Yankee ingenuity, but it augments individual inspiration by employing the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen, using employee groups to continually improve engineering, production, and management procedures.
They’ve done it so well that the Hillsborough facility is the sole remaining automotive lighting source plant in the United States; its 650 employees produce millions of copies of more than 400 different vehicle lamps each year.
Hillsborough has survived—and thrived—by being able to anticipate and adapt to the market and by having a well-trained and flexible workforce that takes pride in its products and its ability to compete in the global environment.
It’s a place where three generations of family members often work side by side and where a son (or daughter) can wind up supervising his parents. It’s also a community role model that encourages area youth to complete their education if they want to work for the best employer in the area.
Among Osram Sylvania’s innovations are the use of red neon in brake lights, amber neon in turn signals, high-intensity discharge headlights, plastic headlights, multiple halogen innovations including a sealed-beam application, and small- and mid-sized lights with wedge bases for increased reliability.
That makes for a nice local business story, but it’s Hillsborough’s latest breakthrough that has put it at the front (literally) of one of the automotive industry’s biggest stories of the year: the all-new 2015 Ford F-150.
When Ford’s designers started planning the new F-150 five years ago, they invited trusted suppliers such as Osram Sylvania to sit in on strategic sessions. The extensive use of aluminum, cutting the truck’s weight by up to 700 pounds, was the big story.
But a second story was the plan to have the first all-LED headlamp assembly in a pickup truck. Ford’s designers wanted it; it was the supplier’s job to make it.
“We developed a prototype assembly, but the stylists didn’t like it,” says David Hulick, Osram Sylvania’s marketing director for automotive lighting. “They don’t necessarily understand how lighting works. Our job was to make a unit that fit their design and met everyone’s technical expectations.”
Ford’s original specifications called for a glass reflecting unit, but it proved to be too expensive to accomplish. Osram and its affiliates came up with a polycarbonate solution.
Calibrating the final product was another project.
“It meant we spent a lot of late nights out in dark parking lots, with engineers saying we need more light over here and/or over there,” says Jonathan Dunlap, product manager for automotive LED systems.
Dunlap was carrying one the of headlamp assemblies, illustrating how the tiny (about the size of a single letter on this newspaper page) LED chip provides all the light, refracted from behind a complex high temperature polycarbonate lens and cooled by a rear-mounted heat-dispersing finned unit.
It’s mind-boggling to comprehend that this tiny light source provides driving light, low beam, and high beam.
The F-150s with the LED headlamp will be particularly recognizable because the light assembly is surrounded by a signature light tube that serves as a running light and directional signal.
If there’s a downside to the F-150 contract, it’s that the new lighting package only will be available on the upscale Lariat, King Ranch, and Platinum models.
On a trip through the assembly area, Dunlap explained how each unit is individually assembled with the aid of an $80,000 “screwdriver” and laser-guided assembly (24 welds per assembly) that ensures each unit is properly focused.
This LED package is mounted in stainless steel because it’s projected to last five times longer than its predecessors; in effect, for the life of the vehicle, no matter how heavy duty its service.
Cheryl Blackwood, plant manager for four Osram Sylvania plants, says the Hillsboro facility is unique with its “can-do” attitude.
“When we were faced with meeting stringent new OSHA standards, people’s first reaction was that we’d never be able to keep up our production while making the changes,” she says. “What happened is that people figured it out and worked at all levels to make it successful. That’s unique to this facility.”
So unique, according to Hulick, that Hillsborough now far exceeds those requirements.
Overall, the industry’s switch to LED lighting should take a while.
“It’s not like the LED is the CD (compact disc) replacing the cassette tape almost overnight,” says Hulick. “The transition should take 10-15 years.”
But change does come inexorably. It was perhaps 10 years ago that Osram Sylvania representatives met with members of the New England Motor Press Association to talk about the coming revolution in automotive lighting.
Back then, Cadillac had just established its highway identity with vertical red LED taillights.
Osram’s people said at the time that colors were relatively easy to produce, but white—the color of headlights—was a major challenge and still a few years away. They noted the blue, pink, amber and other tints showing up in aftermarket HID (high-intensity discharge) units.
That hurdle obviously has been cleared.
“LEDs now are a way to establish brand identity,” says Hulick. “The lighting now can be fancy. It’s the jewelry of the industry. For example, BMW has its ‘angel eyes’ and Audi was a pioneer with its distinctive driving lights.”
“The LED as a styling component has become commonplace,” he says. “It’s one way to differentiate among the ‘jelly bean’ shape of today’s cars.”
But there’s a sense of anticipation at Osram with the coming F-150 lights.
“There’s a ton of pride in this plant in being a flagship,” says Hulick, “and once the new F-150s hit the road, our people will be looking for them out on the road to be able to say ‘Those are our lights.’ ”Bill Griffith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MrAutoWriter.