Resurgent auto industry, fuel standards driving growth at Bristol plant

The resurgent auto industry and fuel standards are driving growth at the plant.

Posted on March 1, 2014 at 6:22 p.m.

BRISTOL — Sometimes news of a merger sends fear throughout a workplace as employees wonder whether their jobs will survive.

But it turns out Diversified Machine Inc. workers have had nothing to worry about.

Since merging in April with Troy, Mich.-based SMW Automotive — the two formed the new Southfield, Mich.-based company Chassix — employment at the Bristol plant has grown from 368 to 470, a 27 percent increase. By the end of this year, the plant plans to add another 105 employees, bringing the total to 575, which would mark a 56 percent jump from the plant's pre-merger level.

The Chassix plant, at 51650 C.R. 133, is accepting applications for all three shifts. Hourly pay rates range from $11.25 to $26, depending on the position.

Three factors are driving the growth: the resurgent U.S. auto industry, new federal fuel efficiency standards, and the plant's ability to both cast and machine the parts it makes for automotive chassis.

Plant manager Doug Forbes, who's worked there since it opened in 1984, recently took an Elkhart Truth reporter and photographer on a tour and described how huge blocks of alloy are transformed into precisely machined auto parts. The plant takes an alloy, melts it down into a molten state, casts it into aluminum structural components, processes it with a heat treatment, and finally machines and assembles it. They make brackets, control arms, cross members and knuckles, parts of the steering and suspension systems for vehicles made by General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, BMW, Mercedes and Nissan.

Of the 25 Chassix plants around the world, Bristol has landed the most new business for this year, said spokesman Brian Bleau. That's partly because of the plant's ability to both cast and machine the parts. Many other Chassix plants, along with Chassix' competitors, either cast or machine.

"Bristol is the model of footprint optimization," Bleau said. "When the two companies came together, in some other locations you had a casting plant in one state and a machining operation in another. Sometimes the parts would be shipped down south, then come back up north to an auto company. Chassix's strategy is to optimize that footprint, make it more efficient and co-locate these facilities, reduce costs and be more competitive."

Forbes said the plant has done both casting and machining since 1992. The plant has recently brought in new machinery needed to produce new orders and expects to be utilizing about 95 percent of its 400,000 square feet of floor space by year's end. Adding on to the plant is a possibility for next year, if growth trends continue.

The industry is seeing demand that was long pent up during the recession. Also, environmentally driven federal fuel economy standards have been a boon to the plant, which is adept at working with aluminum alloys. The automakers are increasingly replacing iron parts with aluminum, and hollowing out parts without compromising strength, to reduce the weight of the vehicle, which improves gas mileage.

Despite a growing number of Elkhart area employers expanding production and hiring new workers, Forbes said he isn't concerned about a tight labor market constraining his ability to meet customer demand.

"When you look at our location here and the fact that we're so close to the Michigan line, we're pulling in a lot of talent from a large area," Forbes said. "We have employees that come all the way from Michigan City, over to Mendon, Mich., all the way over to Angola and as far south as Wabash, Indiana."

Ken Stakas, Chassix senior vice president of operations and casting, said the Bristol plant is "very strategic" for the company.

"There's an extensive amount of capital being deployed there," Stakas said. "It's a very well-known plant to our customers and its ability to bring in new business is a big part of that. Because of their experienced workforce and their ability to utilize the existing facility, they've been able to meet customers' timing requirements for launching new products."

Asked to identify the biggest obstacle to continued growth, Stakas pointed to staffing.

"Bringing in new people and getting them on board quickly to meet clients' timing requirements, there's no room for error," Stakas said. "It's a challenge."












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