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Plain City research center testing future of auto manufacturing

Researchers at KTH’s R&D Technical Center in central Ohio are playing a critical role in trying to ensure the Champaign County manufacturing firm is ahead of the curve in a rapidly changing auto industry.

KTH is an auto parts maker for Honda that specializes in metal stamping and welding operations. The company is one of the region’s largest employers and invested more than $3.7 million to develop a research center in late 2015 as auto makers faced higher fuel economy demands and crash test standards.

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The research and design center has 19 employees who develop new ways to blend materials and new manufacturing processes. There are plans to add some additional employees by the end of the year.

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“We wanted to separate ourselves from the like suppliers,” said Rob Hayes, senior vice president of engineering, quality and production at KTH.

Federal fuel efficiency requirements are pushing automakers to develop vehicles that can achieve 42 miles per gallon by 2020 and 54.5 mpg by 2025. The Trump administration has announced plans to re-examine those requirements, but KTH officials said automakers will likely continue to push for safer, more efficient vehicles regardless of the federal requirements.

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The R&D facility in Plain City serves several purposes for the company, said Anoop Samant, senior engineer for research and development for KTH. Staff at the facility study everything from stamping ultra high strength steel to new ways to blend aluminum and steel components for auto parts to achieve more lightweight vehicles.

Researchers also work closely with guest engineers from Honda to ensure KTH’s products match the automaker’s needs.

European manufacturers have had success mixing materials to develop lightweight auto parts, but not all of those techniques work for facilities like KTH, which makes auto parts at a much higher volume, said Tom Rose, manager of engineering at the Plain City site.

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One of the goals at the R&D center is to develop cost-effective manufacturing techniques that can be applied at KTH facilities in St. Paris and across other sites in the U.S. Company officials said the facility is also a sign of the company’s commitment to central Ohio and its workforce in Champaign County. Some of the processes and materials being studied in Plain City won’t make it onto the manufacturing floor for three to five years.

Staff at the site use computer simulations to determine how the products and designs being developed will hold up in a crash, Rose said. The simulations tell staff at the site exactly how individuals auto parts and materials would fare in a simulated crash.

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The site itself was chosen to attract new talent and to develop partnerships with other firms throughout the state, Samant said. Its location just outside Columbus allows the company to draw from universities and other businesses across the state, and ideally lure skilled workers in an increasingly competitive market.

Researchers at the site also study techniques like self-piercing rivets, in which as much as eight tons of force are applied to a rivet, allowing two separate materials to lock together without a traditional weld.

The process is stronger than a traditional weld and can join materials like steel and aluminum, said Aaron Casares, a process engineer at the facility. Researchers at KTH are working to determine how best to adapt the technology to its products and to its customers’ needs.

“Even though the technology has been there, how do we adapt it to our needs,” Rose said. “That’s something we need to figure out.”

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