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Transmission plant in Laurens county to boost Upstate’s automotive technology cluster


By Scott Miller and James T. Hammond

smiller@scbiznews.com
jhammond@scbiznews.com

Published July 22, 2010

Attracting a transmission plant raises the level of automotive technology in the Upstate’s automotive cluster, said Bob Geolas, director of Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research.

ZF Group of Germany announced plans today to build a plant in Laurens County to make fuel-efficient automatic transmissions for the passenger car and light truck market in North America. The $350 million plant is expected to employ 900 by 2015.

Area economic development officials have long talked about the holy grail of an automotive cluster, an engine plant. Currently, BMW Manufacturing Co.’s engines and transmissions are built in Germany and shipped to South Carolina.

ZF to make transmissions in Laurens County “We certainly are putting the tools in place that could make that (an engine plant) happen,” Geolas said. “This growing and diverse mix of technologies really gets me excited.”

CU-ICAR already has some graduate students working with ZF Group, and has a small research project with the company, Geolas said.

The German company operates locations throughout the United States. In South Carolina, ZF already operates facilities in Lancaster and Duncan. Its Duncan facility supplies front and rear axle assemblies and front upper control arms to BMW in Spartanburg County.

Also in the United States, ZF produces suspension components and systems, steering pumps and gears, shock absorbers, electronics components and axel drives.

“We probably built a part of every vehicle out there,” joked Bryan Johnson, manager of marketing communications for ZF Group’s North American operations, headquartered in Michigan.

ZF announced its intent in June to build a transmission plant to supply North America, as part of an agreement with Chrysler Group.

In Laurens County, ZF Group will build fuel-efficient, eight-speed automatic transmissions. Eventually, ZF could produce other products in Laurens County too, though it doesn’t have plans to do so now, Johnson said. He said ZF has not released the names of customers for this plant but said product could be shipped throughout North America and possibly exported.

The company currently makes those transmissions at a plant in Germany.

Robert Hitt, BMW Manufacturing’s chief spokesman, said ZF Group makes all the transmissions for cars made at the Spartanburg County plant. This year, the plant expects to assemble 155,000 vehicles. Recently, BMW announced that it had finished production of its 1 millionth X5 Sports Activity vehicle. The plant also produces the X6 Sports Activity Coupe and will begin production on the X3.

“Right now they bring them from Europe,” Hitt said, noting ZF also supplies other U.S. auto manufacturers as well.

“Obviously, they have a good business case for building a plant in the United States,” Hitt said.

“To the best of my knowledge, every transmission we’ve installed here, they made,” he said. “We have a long-term relationship with ZF, both here and worldwide.”

When fully operational, ZF will be the largest manufacturing employer in Laurens County, said Marvin Moss, executive director of the Laurens County Development Corp., and second in employment only to Wal-Mart, which employs 1,000 at a distribution center there.

ZF, which will become the first tenant at the Owings Industrial Park off Interstate 385 just south of the Greenville County line, supplies to BMW, the Big Three and most major automobile manufacturers.

Gov. Mark Sanford today joined ZF Group at its headquarters in Friedrichshafen, Germany to announce the company’s decision to expand its operations in South Carolina.

“ZF's decision to make a jobs and capital investment of this magnitude, indeed the largest single infusion of jobs in the history of Laurens County, is an incredible compliment to our state,” Sanford said. “This announcement represents not only enormously good news for our state’s economy, but also is a telling dividend from our continued efforts to better the business climate in South Carolina.  Our meeting with ZF today was productive and offered a real glimpse of what is headed to our state with ZF's new operations, and I’d join with South Carolinians in thanking ZF for their investment.

“We are eager to build our fuel-efficient automatic transmissions in North America.  We believe the increasing emphasis on fuel economy and our reputation for producing high-quality, fuel-efficient transmissions provide an unprecedented opportunity to grow our business.  We believe this production facility could serve as a key driver of this growth,” says Gerhard Wagner, Group Executive of ZF's Car Driveline Division.

ZF plans to begin construction at the plant in January. A general contractor has been hired but has asked to remain unidentified for now, Johnson said. Specifics on ZF’s planned facility are unavailable, he said.

Hiring is anticipated to begin in early 2012 for skilled positions that include CNC operators, assemblers, production and logistics.  The state’s worker training program, readySC, will assist in the hiring process.  Information will be posted at www.sctechjobs.com as jobs become available. 

ZF is a leading worldwide automotive supplier for Driveline and Chassis Technology, with 123 production locations in 27 countries.  In 2009, the ZF Group achieved sales of approximately 9.4 billion Euro ($12.1 billion) with 60,000 employees.  On the ranking list of automotive suppliers, ZF is ranked among the 10 largest automotive suppliers worldwide.  For more information, visit www.zf.com.

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