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Breathtaking Turnaround

When the recession struck, Alabama’s auto industry retrenched and reinvested in human development and rapid recovery. The turnaround has been breathtaking.

A Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama employee works on a door assembly. The company maintained its 3,000-member team during the recession.

A Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama employee works on a door assembly. The company maintained its 3,000-member team during the recession.

When the economic downturn struck Alabama, the state’s prominent automotive manufacturers faced industry-wide challenges as demand declined. Now that the economy shows signs of recovery, Alabama’s Big Four auto companies are firing on all cylinders, increasing production shifts to meet growing demands.  

At the peak of the recession, Honda Manufacturing of Alabama saw a temporary drop in light truck sales. In response, HMA added the Accord V6 Sedan to its assembly line, as well as the Ridgeline pickup, transferred from Honda’s Canadian plant. “Honda’s flexible manufacturing system allows adjustment of product mix based on market demand,” says HMA Vice President Mike Oatridge.

Throughout the recession, HMA maintained its 4,000-member team. During the last three years, HMA has announced more than $508 million in investments and has hired more than 400 associates in production and professional positions. Late last year, the plant also began production of a highly automated engine assembly facility.

As demand for light trucks returned, Honda adjusted shifts to meet production needs. In January 2013, the plant began a four-day, 10-hour workweek with two production shifts. By June 2014, the plant returned to a five-day, 8-hour week with two shifts.

Oatridge believes that the staff’s teamwork and commitment enabled the plant to maintain productivity through the recession. “The enthusiasm, flexibility and dedication of our team of more than 4,000 Alabama associates has been vital to our continued success throughout both the economic downturn and the subsequent recovery,” he says. 

Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama maintained its 3,000-member team during the recession, and was able to increase production to two 10-hour shifts with some Saturdays over a two-and-a-half-year period. “HMMA had to increase output to meet the high demand for the Sonata and Elantra sedans,” says Senior Manager of Public Relations Robert Burns. “Both are the top sellers for Hyundai in the U.S. market.”

To meet this rising demand, HMMA transitioned to an all-sedan production plan, boosting the production speed. In 2010, Hyundai introduced the fluidic sculpture design, a sleek redesign of its lineup. Burns believes that the curvy new look and public appeal aided heavily in the plant’s rebound. “Hyundai’s turnaround after the recession can be attributed to a combination of a solid marketing plan and the introduction of the fluidic sculpture design philosophy,” he says. 

The decision to build the C-Class luxury sedan in Tuscaloosa has paid off for Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc.

 

When the auto industry’s momentum slowed, Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc. went back to the drawing board. “We had to make long-term decisions and plan ahead,” says MBUSI President Jason Hoff. “When the interest in luxury cars picked up, we were able to roll out new products invented during the financial crisis.” The C-Class, SUVs and other luxury vehicles are products of the company’s recession planning. 

As production for the new models began, shifts increased dramatically. Team members who worked less than 40 hours per week during the recession now clock overtime and weekends to meet production goals. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the industry rebound,” says Hoff. “Our team’s flexibility and strong international ties have contributed to the plant’s success.” 

Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama used the industry downtime to retrain staff and improve facilities. “We wanted to invest in human development,” says Plant President Jim Bolte. “Our team members are the experts of kaizen, continuous improvement.” 

The plant’s engineering groups aided in installations and upgrades to the facility, which was expanded in 2011 to 1.2 million square feet. Last year, Toyota Alabama completed an $80 million V6 engine assembly expansion, adding 125 new jobs at the plant. Support from the community, state, and Washington representatives kept momentum strong as the economy began to recover. “We are in a great environment for continuous improvement,” says Bolte. “Demand is high and frequently brings us into overtime and weekends.”

Last year, Toyota launched the Advanced Manufacturing Technician Program, a two-year, expenses-paid program at Calhoun Community College that prepares students to fill skilled manufacturing positions throughout the auto industry. 

Thomas Little is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.

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