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Auto industry in Western New York is getting more than $1 billion in investment

In Western New York, the automakers are hiring.

With more than $1 billion in recent and planned investments, the Buffalo Niagara region’s General Motors and Ford Motor Co. factories are on a collective upswing unseen since the mid-2000s, before the recession hit.

And with U.S. auto sales expected to continue climbing this year, demand should be healthy for the parts they produce. has forecast U.S. auto sales to climb this year to 16.4 million, which would be the highest total since 2006.

Here is how the region’s automotive plants are sizing up the year:

General Motors engine plant in the Town of Tonawanda: The complex along River Road is coming off a big year, when it marked its 75th anniversary and launched the second of two engine lines that GM had announced in 2010. Its employment has grown to 1,902 people, including 1,658 hourly workers represented by United Auto Workers Local 774.

“I would label 2013 as the year of the wow,” said Steve Finch, the plant manager. It was a long way from the grim days of 2009, when the automaker was on the financial brink and GM facilities were fretting about their futures.

Along with dazzling improvements like “flying robots” have come new jobs, and not just for workers who were already connected to GM through other facilities. People new to the industry were hired, too, earning less than their veteran co-workers, under a two-tier wage system approved under a labor contract.

Both of Tonawanda’s new engine lines – a combined $825 million investment – are expected to support additional GM vehicles starting this year. Its Generation V engine line, launched in 2013, has achieved a milestone: for the first time in the plant’s history, one of its assembly lines has gone to three shifts.

Along with the new personnel, the Tonawanda complex has undergone extensive physical improvements, including new concrete floors, offices and lights that set up the facility for many years to come, Finch said. And with a “flexible” manufacturing system, the complex can more easily switch between production of engines.

With all of those significant changes in place, Finch sees the Tonawanda site entering a period of “growth and development,” concentrating on producing high-quality engines. The plant produced about 365,000 engines in 2013, up from 272,000 from the year before, when transition between engine lines was under way. A 2014 production forecast for the plant was not released.

On the personnel side, Bill Shaw, GM’s North American manufacturing manager said the plant has also been effective at bringing in people who are new to manufacturing and putting them through a rigorous training program. While that might seem like a challenge, Shaw said there is also a benefit: All of those people new to the industry bring with them new ideas and a fresh perspective.

General Motors Components Holdings plant in Lockport: The Upper Mountain Road plant – which GM took back from Delphi a few years ago – is wrapping up $44 million in new investment by GM that began in 2012. The spending has supported the launch of a variety of new vehicle programs. The Lockport plant makes products including radiators, condensers, heater cores, evaporators and HVAC modules, for a range of Chevy, GMC, Buick and Cadillac products.

In the first quarter of this year, GM Lockport will launch products for heavy-duty pickup trucks and full-size utility trucks, said Pat Curtis, the plant manager.

Its workforce has grown to 1,691 people, including 1,443 hourly workers. Last year, the site added 113 full-time workers, a notable influx of people who were new to the industry. “They want this place to be as good as it can be,” said Michael Branch, shop chairman for UAW 686.

After the new hires were trained, some of them requested additional training to make them eligible to serve as team leaders, under the system the plant uses on the floor to promote quality and problem solving in small groups. “The spirit, the engagement, the buy-in was incredible,” said Susan Gouthro, the plant’s personnel director.

Branch said the Lockport plant’s management and UAW 686 leadership in 2013 worked to change perceptions of the plant, to demonstrate their joint commitment to good results.

A highlight of their effort was a summertime visit from Joseph Ashton, who heads the UAW’s GM department, and James Glynn, GM’s North American labor relations vice president. “It was big to get both of those folks here,” said Gordie Fletcher, UAW 686’s president. Both high-raking visitors have local connections: Ashton used to lead the UAW’s Amherst-based Region 9, while Glynn is a Tonawanda native.

Ashton and Glynn talked to employees one-on-one and saw how things were working at the plant, Fletcher said. “You can talk about what you’re doing all day long, when someone actually comes in and experiences it for themselves, actions speak louder than words.”

Ford Motor Co.’s Hamburg plant: The plant got a jolt of good news last November when Ford confirmed would invest $150 million and add 350 jobs to its workforce of about 620 hourly and salaried workers.

The investment is crucial. As a standalone stamping plant – automakers nowadays typically have stamping and assembly plants close to each other – the Hamburg site needs to stay as modern and efficient as possible. A key link to its fortunes is about 90 miles away in Oakville, Ont., where the Hamburg plant sends stamped parts to a Ford assembly plant that makes the Ford Flex, Ford Edge, Lincoln MKX and Lincoln MKT.

On the Hamburg plant floor, the new investment is under way. The site is adding more than 25 new subassemblies, including hoods, doors and fenders, more than 500 new dies and a new blanking line, which is used to cut sheet metal. Ford will also upgrade and refurbish equipment to support “future product programs” for additional vehicles, and will provide more training to workers.

Cummins Inc. near Jamestown: The heavy-duty engine plant is Chautauqua County’s largest private employer, with about 1,500 jobs. The facility turns 40 this year, and last summer it marked a milestone: production of the 1.5 millionth engine in its history. The Jamestown plant makes heavy-duty engines for trucks and industrial applications.

The plant is in the midst of a multiyear, $20 million investment in physical improvements including the roof and an improved HVAC system, said Mike Abbate, the plant manager. And that spending benefits area contractors. “You can imagine how that ripples through the community,” he said.

This year, a 2-megawatt solar panel system is being installed on the facility’s roof. As the plant makes these changes, it is also becoming more energy-efficient, helping control the site’s long-term costs.

Cummins in 2010 invested $50 million in the rollout of its ISX12 12-liter engine; last summer, it released a natural gas version of the product.