Volume 15 | Issue 2 | Year 2012

In the United States, the major automobile manufacturers – such as BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and Mercedes-Benz – are driven by IFA Rotorion-North America LLC. They’re attracted to the South Carolinaheadquartered company’s longitudinal drive shafts.
“Many of the cars those companies build in the United States contain our drive shafts,” says IFA Rotorion-North America’s President and Chief Executive Officer Felix von Nathusius.

There’s a good reason for that. IFA Rotorion-North America is the leading manufacturer of innovative, high-quality and light weight drive shafts in the United States (just as its parent company is turning out in Europe). Drive shafts are a critical automobile component, transmitting torque, delivering power from a vehicle’s engine to the rear wheels. There’s an increasing demand for the technology (especially low imbalance shafts, since vehicles are so quiet today and do not mask drive train noise any more), as well as demand for the best the market has to offer. After all, drive shafts are subject to increasing torque demand despite rising fuel economy and need to be strong. That’s what IFA Rotorion provides, and that places the South Carolina business in a good position.

“The entire enterprise is focused on providing superior technology and solutions,” says von Nathusius.

The US operation dates back to 2002. It was originally an independent sales organization and equipment producer for MTU Friedrichshafen and Daimler AG. Starting in 2004, this antecedent organization became a producer of the more advanced technology for longitudinal drive shafts. It became known as Rotorion America LLC and operated a plant in Ladson, which is near Charleston, S.C. In 2009, after the IFA Group acquired Rotorion America’s parent company, Rotorion GmbH, the business became known as IFA Rotorion North America LLC.

PRODUCTION GOALS MET
When it was still known as Rotorion America, the operation experienced a peak year in 2007, when it turned out about 800,000 drive shafts. But the company had a head-on collision with the 2008 economic downswing, same as it was for the entire automotive sector. After the merger, leaders in the newly combined company looked to turn things around, setting a goal to produce one million drive shafts by end of 2012.

IFA Rotorion-North America’s goal was reached about two years ahead of schedule. “Last year, we produced just over one million drive shafts,” reveals von Nathusius.

He adds: “In 2012, we are on track to produce 1.5 million shafts.”

Gratified by the success, the company has expanded its ambitions. “In the next three to five years, we’re looking to produce about two million drive shafts annually,” he says. To that effort, since 2004 the company has made a capital investment of more than $60 million.

Expansion also involves product portfolio. “Currently, in the United States, we focus on drive shafts for passenger cars and SUVs, but we want to bring in more products and technology from Europe to increase our offerings,” says von Nathusius. “We’re looking to move into industrial applications and to bring our composite solutions into the United States.”

WEIGHTY ISSUES
IFA Rotorion North America LLC benefits from its use of the new flangeless IFA joint technology which reduces weight excellently. Similar applications utilizing carbon fiber tubing achieve even more weight reductions for their customers. With drive shafts – aside from the quality and processing standards considerations – there are three main interest areas, says von Nathusius. These include efficiency/weight, NVH /noise attenuation and safety. “Our solutions strongly focus on each area, and that has distinguished us from other companies,” von Nathusius relates.

He describes the significance of weight: “All of your energy goes through the drive shaft, and the engine produces the power that gets transmitted through the shaft. If the shaft is very heavy, which decreases efficiency, you lose some of the power. Energy is wasted. When that happens, fuel consumption is increased. So weight and efficiency become critical, and we pride ourselves on having the most efficient drive shafts, in terms of system integration.”

Painting comes into play. “We have the only facility in the United States that paints its drive shafts in house, which helps reduce weight and, in turn, increases drive-shaft efficiency,” von Nathusius points out. “This is something our US customers increasingly want, and it’s one of our areas of expertise.”

The next factor – NVH/noise, vibration and harshness – relates to driver comfort. “This involves vibration, which creates audible noise, and our customers want to have these reduced, so we have made this another area of expertise,” he says.

Third, and probably most important, is safety. “The drive shaft goes through the entire vehicle and it’s very close to the driver,” indicates von Nathusius. That could have serious ramifications in a crash scenario. “Also, you don’t want the drive shaft to harm the passenger room,” he adds. “Therefore, we have placed collapsible features in our drive shafts, which essentially have a telescopic effect on the product. Our focus on these three areas lends us distinction.”

IFA Rotorion-North America accomplishes all of this in its only production facility, the Ladson plant, which includes about 200,000 square feet of manufacturing space. The facility possesses all of the capabilities required to turn out more than a million drive shafts of the highest quality, observes von Nathusius.

The company’s other North American location, in Novi, Mich., focuses on sales, engineering, and business and product development activities. In all, the company has about 300 employees in the United States.

MOVING FORWARD
As IFA Rotorion-North America drives forward it plans to continue focusing on the three critical areas that von Nathusius mentioned, particularly weight. “In the United States, we’re introducing a system, already in use for IFA’s German customers,” he says.

This enables quicker assembly and removal of certain parts – such as connectors and adapters – that can reduce the weight of the drive shaft system by as much as between 40 and 70 percent (the highest reductions are achieved in conjunction with carbon fiber tubing).

“Our strategy with light weight is that if there is more focus on energy efficient cars, there will be other parts being looked at, where steel is substituted with carbon fiber, and we are the experts in designing high-performance parts from those materials – and we can produce them in large numbers. Already we see, with both electrical vehicles and conventional vehicles, many applications with carbon fiber,” says von Nathusius. “We’ve helped prove it’s possible. Indeed, we’re already doing it.”

Further – and beyond product and technology – IFA Rotorion-North America will continue to operate as a good neighbor. “The entire organization remains true to the communities in which it operates,” says von Nathusius. “That means we have a long-term plan here in the United States, and it involves job development, training and active community involvement. For instance, we have a middle-school program that involves reading classes, where we try to interest students in the strong US industrial heritage and point out options – that you can have a very interesting and rewarding career in engineering and manufacturing.”

It’s a very altruistic endeavor, but it also makes good business sense: IFA Rotorion-North America could be developing its own farm system of talent. As von Nathusius indicates, “We compete in the job market for skilled labor, and currently there is a lack in the United States.”