KSM Castings USA, a subsidiary of the German-based global automotive component maker, is investing $80 million in a new plant to manufacture parts using counter pressure casting, a highly efficient innovative process that allows for precision customization of aluminum on a mass production basis. David Soyka reports on how this North Carolina Tier 1 automotive supplier is looking to staff up.
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With an $80 million expansion at its Shelby, North Carolina location, Tier 1 automotive supplier KSM Castings USA is putting out a casting call to fill some 80 positions over the next five years to help build lightweight aluminum transmission, chassis, engine and steering components. The new jobs include opportunities for production workers, machine operators, pourers and casters, among other classifications; the company promises to provide hands-on training to get new and prospective employees completely up-to-speed with the necessary skills required in modern manufacturing.
The upcoming 50,000 square-foot addition is planned as a dedicated facility to perform counter pressure casting (CPC), a highly efficient, innovative process that allows for precision customization of aluminum on a mass production basis. Full scale manufacture of chassis parts for a major German OEM is expected by 2018. It complements the existing KSM Castings fully automated high pressure die casting production facility comprising 120,000 square feet and employing 130 workers. In total, KSM Castings will have made investments of $135 million in the Shelby operations.
Compared to conventional die casting processes, CPC enables the independent adjustment of furnace and mold pressures, allowing form filling and solidification of the melt under pressure. An additional advantage is the high cooling rate, which makes it ideal for auto chassis components that have a high static and dynamic load.
“The expansion is part of our long term strategy to offer different production processes that best fit customer needs and most efficiently supply local markets,” explains Jan-Christoph Schwarck, president and plant manager. “We’re pretty optimistic about the automotive industry in general and, based on the RFQs customers are sending us, we actually could have expanded even further. But we felt it best that we start small, get the new plant established and operationally stable, and then grow from there.”
As part of that growth strategy, KSM Castings is also setting up an office in Detroit in conjunction with aluminum wheel manufacturer CiTiC Dicastal, which is also the owner of Germanbased parent KSM Castings Group. “Detroit is still the heartland for the American auto industry. We want to be closer to our customers to better understand and fulfill their needs by developing, constructing and optimizing products directly on-site together with our customers,” Schwarck notes. Those needs can include everything from build-to-print to new design.
“We’re also aggressively recruiting for new employees in Detroit as well as other keys hubs for the manufacturing industry,” Schwarck says. “One of our biggest challenges right now is filling the positions we need for the new plant in Shelby. Unfortunately for us, BMW’s U.S. manufacturing operations are based in South Carolina, and they attract a lot of the skilled labor in the region. We’re hoping to find people interested in getting trained in modern manufacturing techniques who might be interested in the great quality of life here in North Carolina’s Cleveland County.”
Case in point, according to a company press release, is 44 year-old Kenneth Richardson, an accomplished foundry technologist who became one of the first employees at the Shelby plant after the local foundry closed three years ago. “I heard in the media about the new KSM Plant and immediately submitted my application, with success” Richardson reports. “At KSM I could re-enter my profession and further develop.” He is proud of the fact that within one year and out of nothing, a state-of-the-art production facility was built and put into operation. “We never had this before in Shelby. This is why in 2014, KSM Castings was the recipient of the “Industry of the Year Award” presented by the Cleveland County Chamber of Commerce,” Schwarck notes.
Partnering with North Carolina
Schwarck is particularly impressed with how local and state government works closely to help promote and support industry. “I’m from Germany where government is happy to have industry set up, but that’s about the extent of it,” he says. “In contrast, North Carolina has done an outstanding job in supporting us and our employees. It’s not just that all levels of government have been very co-operative in helping us, they’ve been vital to us being here from the beginning.”
Indeed, the company’s expansion was made possible in part by a $320,000 grant from the One North Carolina Fund, which provides financial assistance to county or municipal governments to create jobs and attract economic investment. In addition, the North Carolina General Assembly, NCWorks, Cleveland County and Shelby all took active roles in facilitating the expansion.
In particular, Schwarck notes the important participation of the North Carolina Community College system. “We need to train a new generation of factory workers in the latest technologies and manufacturing techniques,” he explains. “As part of our partnership with the local community colleges and trade schools, we’ve set up a robotic assembly line specifically for training purposes. We’re doing this both to have somewhere to send our existing employees to get the necessary training, as well as to educate students in modern manufacturing processes—we hope some of those students might eventually seek careers here with us at KSM Castings.”
No greater testament to the success of the partnership with state agencies is how quickly KSM Castings has grown. The existing plant has only been fully operational since August 2014, originally employing a 900 ton and two 750 ton high pressure die casting machines. In the summer of 2015, three more die casting machines were added with clamping forces of 3,000 tons, and 1350 tons were installed for the production of transmission housings and inner transmission parts. Since then, some 18,500 transmission parts per week have rolled off the assembly lines.
Another factor key to the success of KSM Castings is the increasing demand for aluminum components by the automotive industry. “Aluminum is 30 percent lighter than steel,” Schwarck notes. “It’s also true that aluminum components are more expensive than steel. But, with more stringent fuel requirements, automakers need to find ways to reduce the weight of their vehicles to improve fuel consumption effi ciency. KSM Castings is well established in the manufacture of lightweight crash-related safety components with high demands on elongation and strength for chassis and body parts.”
Environmental concerns also shape production practices. “Our customers demand an environmentally friendly, high quality product at a good price,” Schwarck says. “A good price can only be guaranteed by a cost-effective and resource-saving production.”
He adds, “Our employees are key to ensuring those resource-preserving yet cost-efficient processes achieve optimum performance. First-class employees are the foundation of KSM Castings. They ensure are products are in top position for quality and technological innovation.”