Dayton’s largest auto plant may get smaller in coming years as it invests millions in robotic automation to help it gain a competitive foothold against lower-cost plants globally, company leaders say.
Behr Thermal Products, 1600 Webster St., will invest about $2 million this year and “at least that amount” next year in the technology, company spokeswoman Rose Fitzgerald told the Dayton Daily News.
One effect of that investment will be fewer jobs at the facility. Plant manager Rob Baker said annual cuts of about five percent of the workforce — about 35 people — are possible for three years, perhaps longer, as long as automation “makes sense.”
The future of manufacturing depends in part on automation, said Martin Haegele, head of the Department of Robot and Assistive Systems for the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA in Stuttgart, Germany.
“Keeping manufacturing a critical part of an economy is very much dependent on productivity and wage levels and an industrial culture,” Haegele said. “Here, robotics steps in.”
Baker emphasized that the plant’s goal is not to cut workers, but to invest in technology “to make the plant more efficient or competitive in the industry.”
“We’re actually the last (auto part supplier) to do it,” Baker said.
The plant has about 960 active employees and 120 inactive employees. The plant is steadily hiring, benefiting from a stronger auto industry, in the U.S. and abroad, Baker said. The plant has new product launches planned, and half of its new hires are tied to those launches, he said.
Behr welcomed a new hiring class of about 17 employees earlier this month, said William Gibbs, president of International Union of Electronic Workers and Communication Workers of American Local 775, which represents hourly workers at the former Chrysler plant.
The plant serves both domestic and foreign automakers. In fact, the company is still looking for people, Gibbs said.
Gibbs said he supports an investment in automation as long as it strengthens the plant and keeps it open.
“That’s how they go out and bid on more work,” he said.
“It helps us stay competitive with China and Mexico,” Baker said. “If we don’t automate, those jobs will be in Mexico.”
Auto sales in March were strong, with the domestic three automakers reporting sales up at least 5 percent. That’s fueling demand from parts suppliers like Behr.
“Overall, from a plant standpoint, I think we’re doing well,” Baker said.
But the company faces competitive pressures that can’t be ignored, he added. He sees the plant making capital investments in not only robotics, but injection molding.
One reason for the investments: Behr is bidding on renewal of its business with Chrysler, about 25 percent of the plant’s work, he said. The plant makes front and rear HVAC (heating, ventilation, air-conditioning) modules for Chrysler mini-vans as well as the engine cooling modules for mini-vans. It also makes the front HVAC module for the Grand Cherokee, as well as HVAC modules for the Dodge Challenger.
Baker expects a decision on contract renewal soon, perhaps by the end of May.
Gibbs said he is not concerned about losing the Chrysler contract. The plant has been working for Chrysler for a long time. “We’re in an excellent position,” he said.
Timothy Downs, Dayton deputy director of economic development, said Behr has not shared with the city its automation plans, but he called Behr an “important” employer and he agreed that the company is doing well. “That goes along with what we’ve been hearing,” he said.
Jeff Burnstein, president of the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Robotics Industries Association, says automation can lead to improved productivity and higher quality.
“Overall, it’s a way to become globally competitive,” Burnstein said.
Intelligently implemented, automation can help manufacturers lower costs, boost quality and get parts to customers more quickly, he said.
To those who contend that robotics rob workers of jobs, Burnstein says: “Our response is that it actually creates jobs for people.”
“The real threat is not being competitive,” he added.