Interview with GWR Chairman, Luis Capella
How long have you been in the seat belt industry?
I started in 1974, so 42 years. When I first started out, the automotive industry and the seat belt industry were changing very rapidly. Laws were being created that required new cars to be produced with seat belts, resulting in increased regulation. We were moving from 3-point non-retractable seat belts to 3-point retractable seat belts and the technology was advancing. The automobile manufacturers were becoming much more involved with their supply chains, and manufacturing processes were evolving to become much more efficient.
The 1970’s was when the United Nations rule ECE R16 started in Europe. Mention FMVSS in the United States. These rules specified seat belt requirements such as how much strength the webbing should sustain, and how many times buckles and retractors should be cycled. The European R-16 went much further, and required crash testing with specific anchorage points.
At the same time there was a push for new seat belt technology, and Ford was leading the charge. I was working for Allied Chemical at the time when Ford decided to assemble automatic seat belts. They were the first company to use seat belts with Emergency Locking Retractors (ELRs) in Spain. Allied Chemical was already producing ELRs in Germany and France, but custom fees back then were very expensive, so it was prohibitively expensive to import those retractors. Therefore we created all new tooling for a custom retractor for Ford in Spain.
Ford also had a lot to do with the changes in the manufacturing processes then. They were much more involved with their suppliers and their production. They started auditing their supplier’s factories. Ford said if we wanted to sell to them, we must implement their Quality System. We had to implement a strict control plan for incoming product, a strict control plan for production, and an audit of outgoing product. For example, just because you receive components from top suppliers, didn’t mean they were good enough for production. Therefore components coming into the warehouse had to be kept completely separate from production, and tested in a statistical way. Start by testing 10%, if no problems after one year, test 5%, if no problems after 2 years, test less, if a problem was found, test more. Any components not good enough for production had to be labeled red, and put behind a red line and behind a closed door. These are things that seem simple now, but these kinds of processes were one of the important things that happened in the 1970s. All of these processes became ISO 9001. After ISO was used, the customers stopped visiting our factories, and the ISO auditors were then responsible to make sure suppliers were following the right processes.
What made you want to start GWR?
In 1982, when Autoliv bought AlliedSignal Restraint Systems, there were a lot of smaller customers that Autoliv did not want to continue supplying. It was an instant market and we took advantage of the opportunity. We created a factory and started supplying to seat manufacturers, and also started manufacturing racing harnesses and occupant restraint systems for vehicles transporting people in wheelchairs. The company grew quickly from there, and when the laws in Europe changed to require seat belts in buses, we became specialists in that market and were exporting bus seat belts throughout Europe.
Any customers you wish you had?
We were close to working with Volkswagen in the 1990’s. They had decided to import the body of the old Volkswagen beetle from Mexico to Spain. Autoliv did not want the business because there was too much engineering work required for the volume, and they told Volkswagen to talk to GWR. We designed the seat belts for the beetle and had them tested and approved. Then Volkswagen in Germany decided to design and produce the new beetle.
Any good stories?
In 1992 the seat belt regulation changed to require three tested/homologated seat belts in the rear passenger seats of cars (prior that that it was just two). All of the automakers started doing this, but in July, 1992, Renault had cars that had been shipped to the dealers with two belts in the rear, not three. They hadn’t been sold yet, but they were sitting on the dealer lots. The law was such that starting September 1992, you could not sell any car that didn’t have the mandatory three seat belts in the rear. Autoliv was the supplier to Renault for those cars, but they could not handle it. Therefore Renault called GWR, and we agreed to manufacture the seat belts for them. Because we were already supplying to Renault, we had the approvals and homologations already in place for that belt. At that time, GWR’s factory would close for most of August, but we kept the factory open that month working full time to supply all the belts to Renault before September.
What are some recent changes at GWR?
We have recently been hiring more employees from top OEM suppliers, and the average seat belt industry experience for our employees has increased from 16 years to 22 years. The decision to invest in automated production lines has also increased our output. Hiring Carlos Grassi has brought new ideas and a refined strategy for growth. The company has a great history but the change in leadership is laying the groundwork a much more sophisticated and professional future. It is an exciting time at GWR Safety Systems.