Volume 14 | Issue 2 | Year 2011

Auto manufacturing is a global industry, with the luxury car segment driving distinctive brands across national borders: BMW or Mercedes-Benz no longer relies solely on a European home base to satisfy the demand for high-end cars precision engineered for performance, comfort and prestige. Such companies now look to the United States. But effective global market success requires reliable regional partners ever present to supply key components.
That’s where Draexlmaier Automotive of America comes in. The South Carolina-based automotive enterprise delivers. It boasts a rare combination of expertise related to integrated electric and interior solution system solutions, tool making and logistics.

Heritage increases value: It’s a subsidiary of the Germany-based multinational Dräxlmaier Group, one of the few remaining family owned firms in an industry dominated by mega-conglomerates. For high-end carmakers, partnership with Dräxlmaier translates into opportunity.

Established in 1958, the Dräxlmaier Group set up its North American operations in 1976 in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. In 1996, Draexlmaier Automotive of America opened up shop in Duncan, S.C. (where it maintains its North American interior systems headquarters).

During this 50-plus year period – and particularly since the 1990s – the company witnessed substantial transformation in automotive industry production and supply segments. From there, the new century brought new challenges. “Like everyone else in this industry, we faced tough times in 2008 and 2009,” says Stefan Bude, the company’s chief financial officer. “Fortunately, the current picture is considerably brighter.”

For example, after GM successfully restructured, the Cadillac nameplate proved comparable to European luxury brands. “Cadillac now wants to partner with us, so that we can provide them the same quality workmanship that we supply to premier luxury automobile companies like BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Audi, Bugatti and Jaguar.”

It only stands to reason, says Bude.

Further, new contracts with existing customers necessitate expansion at the South Carolina facility, which will take place over the next three to five years. Increased capacity, Brude anticipates, will create about 150 new jobs (currently, the Dräxlmaier Group’s US facility employs about 550 people, a figure that doesn’t even include the 150 part-time workers or contractors).

The company is currently adding 60,000 square feet to its existing 250,000-square-foot plant in Duncan, S.C. to meet demand for product. It also has five production facilities in Mexico and one in Nicaragua. These add about a million square feet to the total North/South American manufacturing capacity. Attached to the production facilities are locations in Detroit (sales offices) and in Lansing, Mich. and Chattanooga, Tenn. (two significant logistic hubs).

In Tennessee, Dräxlmaier works on site with Volkswagen of America, helping it to ramp up a new and highly touted “green” plant.” The plant was originally intended to manufacture the North American version of the Passat, which could adopt many features found in the luxury segment. Bude describes the implications: “More and more, the things that we have specialized in – like custom leather interiors and sophisticated electronics – have found their way into the less expensive segments. Of course, that means more opportunity for us.”

The company’s interior products include complete cockpits, ceiling/door side panels, center consoles, gear shifts and gear selectors. All of these demonstrate an undeniable artfulness and classiness, as they’re clad with natural materials such as:

  • Flawlessly crafted high quality leather;
  • Fine woods in either a classic look or modern colors, polished or matte, painted or natural grain;
  • Brushed metals with a large assortment of decors and stampings;
  • Wafer-thin. laser-cut stone;
  • Special treatments (ranging from carbon to precious metals and variety of fabrics).

Many times, the manufacturer provides the specifications, but – just as often – Dräxlmaier is called on to design the interior, and Bude reveals what this means. “We’re not just a supplier of product; we’re a provider of complete customized solutions.”

Indeed, company’s value extends throughout the interior – an increasingly sophisticated wiring harness system (fiber optic cables, power management and lighting electronic harnesses): technology that lights up the company like a bright riverboat that previously illuminated the once-dark Mississippi banks.

As Bude indicates, the functional integration of specialized cockpit components and electronic systems requires a specific approach – a modular approach. “This provides a unique marriage of form and function that improves production efficiencies and reduces waste,” he points out.

Not to mention a delivery of seamless integration – of interior components, cockpits, wiring harness and electrical management systems. This amounts to new automotive industry standards.

As it pushes the industry forward, Dräxlmaier’s well-developed capacity for innovative elegance is certainly an asset. “Our clients depend on our demonstrated talent as far as logistical capabilities, which we combine with approach toward providing unique and luxurious interiors,” Bude emphasizes. “This adds value to a high-end brand.”

But we’re moving from there, he adds.

As the company demonstrably increases capacity and volume, it also seeks to reduce cost through adaptation of latest technologies and best practices, Bude adds. “We’ve benefited from a parent company that developed management systems – compliant with ISO 14001 principals – that optimize performance,” he points out. “We continually scrutinize our processes to see where we can eliminate waste and improve efficiency and speed up our complex, company-wide activities.”

When you get into technology management, your entering into some complex, fearsome territory; but the Dräxlmaier Group proves to be one of the five most successful companies, accordingly to Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology (IPT). According to the company, only about 300 companies from various branches participated in Fraunhofer’s international project study. Dräxlmaier was among the five that made it to the final round, thanks to “successful practices.”

Specifically, Dräxlmaier was cited for its “early recognition of new technology, the planning of technology and the technology assessment [which] are considered to be exemplary.”

Dräxlmaier strives not only to contain and reduce its own manufacturing costs, but to take costs out of its products. “The luxury market is more specialized, of course, but like the rest of the auto industry, we’re looking to adopt more environmentally responsible practices that are not only good for the planet, but also improve the bottom line,” comments Bude. “Wherever possible, we look to use recyclable parts and lighter materials.”

The latter, as he relates, is particularly important. Even in the luxury market, consumers demand better fuel consumption ratings. So, the lighter you make the vehicle, the better the mileage.

“Also, we’ve reduced a significant portion of precious metals used in our electrical wiring systems,” says Bude, adding that this not only keeps potentially toxic materials out of the waste stream but also reduces costs.

Meanwhile, the increasing sophistication of automobiles means more opportunities, in terms of interiors and “smart” electronic systems. That means both the luxury cars and the mid-value family cars. It also means hybrids. “That’s one direction where automakers are looking,” says Bude, “and that’s a direction where we headed.”

And where it landed.

Viability of hybrids mean sophisticated electrical requirements, and for all of that to be workable, you need the most innovative and sustainable solutions. That’s a pretty good way to describe where we are and what we intend to provide.”

And that’s what’s going to take the Draexlmaier Automotive of America – and the Dräxlmaier Group – into the future.

Previous articleDriving Full-Speed Ahead
Next articleCasting a Different Shadow