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Local auto plants gear up with big investments GM Tonawanda, other factories pour millions into upgrades

General Motors Corp.'s Town of Tonawanda engine plant is installing its higher-tech future.

The site is gearing up for two new engine lines, representing a combined investment of $825 million. Workers are tearing out equipment from phased-out engine lines to make way for a new V-8 and a next-generation Ecotec engine. The new investment will include "flying robots" and equip the plant to respond to car-buying tastes more quickly.

"This is the new GM in manufacturing in action," said Steve Finch, the plant manager. The objective: take the automaker's manufacturing capacity, use it fully and make it flexible.

Just as automakers can't survive without new car sales through dealers, their production plants need new investments to keep going. Running efficiently is essential not only to compete with rival automakers, but to win the "internal" competition with sister plants for capital investment. Losing out on those investments leaves a plant's future at risk as its older products fade away.

GM's plants in Tonawanda and Lockport have proven their staying power within the automaking giant. The Tonawanda site survived GM's cut list in 2009, and the Lockport site was among the few Delphi plants GM took back from the supplier.

Key suppliers to the automotive industry also are investing in their operations, including Goodyear Dunlop Tires North America in the Town of Tonawanda and Cummins Inc.'s engine plant near Jamestown.

Auto manufacturing plants may not have the massive headcounts of decades ago. But even in relatively smaller numbers, their high-wage jobs are considered valuable, creating a powerful economic ripple effect in the community. The state Labor Department said the average wage for a transportation equipment manufacturing worker in 2009 was $81,967.

Increasingly, jobs at auto manufacturing plants are linked to advanced technology.

At GM Tonawanda, the new Ecotec engine line is scheduled to begin regular production in April 2012, said Tom Shea, the launch manager for the line. Equipment for the line is due to start arriving in March or April for installation this year.

"It's absolutely exciting," Shea said. "We've been through some tough times. For our plant and the community, it's really a great place to be right now."

The new production lines will include what are being called "flying robots" to load and unload equipment in a certain area. The robots travel along a suspended beam and can be adjusted to handle production of the different engines in Tonawanda's portfolio by changing the robot gripper, machine fixture and machine tooling.

The flying robots will give the plant increased flexibility. In the past, the plant used dedicated automation to move parts between machines. Under that setup, switching to a different engine would require buying all-new equipment.

The new, faster solution allows the plant to react quickly to market trends, such as a spike in gas prices driving up sales of smaller cars.

GM's new V-8 engine line will use technology similar to the new Ecotec line's, said Mike Fonte, the launch manager. The V-8 is set to begin production in February 2013; equipment for the line will start arriving in September.

Management and hourly workers are enthusiastic about getting involved, Fonte said. When the call went out for volunteers to join a launch team, 30 people applied for the 10 positions, he said.

Near Jamestown, Indiana-based Cummins Inc. is pumping tens of millions of dollars into its 1,300-employee plant, a vote of confidence in its future.

"This is our North American facility for the heavy-duty engines," said Mark Land, a company spokesman. "We don't do this anywhere else."

Cummins has invested $60 million in equipment and tooling to upgrade the plant to prepare it for the production of new engines. It also is pouring $20 million into increasing the site's production capacity, without actually expanding the site's footprint. And Cummins is investing about $5 million into plant technology, such as for engine testing.

Cummins' Jamestown plant felt the effects of a market downswing in 2010, a trend the company anticipated. Whenever emissions standards change and new engines debut, its customers tend to stock up on existing engines just before the new ones debut. A sales lull ensues, affecting output in Jamestown.

Now Cummins is preparing for an upswing, with employees who took voluntary leave in 2010 now back on the job.

"We feel pretty confident that the demand is going to be there," Land said.

In Tonawanda, Goodyear Dunlop North American Tires added two motorcycle tire-building machines with the latest technology for building more radial tires, said Diane Zwirecki, a spokeswoman. The site is Goodyear's only North American plant that builds motorcycle tires.

Other projects included upgrading its rubber compound mixing equipment, component prep equipment including inner liner lines, tire building machines, and tire curing and finishing equipment, as well as improvements to the plant's warehouse and shipping center, Zwirecki said.

The plant also added seven tire-curing presses, many of which support the motorcycle tire business.

In Hamburg, Ford Motor Co.'s stamping plant in recent years has secured work on current products such as the Ford Edge and Flex, and the Lincoln MKX and MKT. Those vehicles are assembled up the QEW in Oakville, Ont., using stamped parts produced here.

But the plant also faces a looming challenge. Ford's assembly plant in St. Thomas, Ont., is set to close in the third quarter of this year. A union official said that plant accounts for 37 percent of the Hamburg site's work. Securing new work to fill the void is considered a priority for the Route 5 location.

Ford said it was not yet ready to discuss its investment plans for 2011. James Tetreault, a Ford manufacturing executive, said in an interview last year that the Hamburg plant "will figure in our future footprint for stamping."

e-mail: mglynn@buffnews.com