German plant to rev up expansion

The machinery at Weber Automotive's Dorchester County plant shapes high-precision engines parts that are measured in microns - one one-millionth of a meter.

In a simple industrial building in Summerville, a small German company is making its move on the powerful U.S. auto manufacturing industry.

Weber Automotive Corp., which makes specialized engine parts, is ramping up production and planning to hire dozens more workers in the coming months as it pushes to supply industry giants such as Chrysler, General Motors and Ford. The plant off U.S. Highway 78 in Summerville also is set for a $10 million makeover, while executives in Markdorf, Germany, consider an even bigger expansion on a massive tract of land they own in North Charleston.

Workers at the local plant spend most of their time making crankshafts, a delicate, curvy part of a car engine that moves the pistons as it rotates in a circular motion. It's highly specialized and precise work that calls for skilled employees and boosts the profile of the local manufacturing community, said Jim Friar, economic development director for Dorchester County.

"That is one of the most modern crankshaft production plants in the world, and it's right here in Charleston (area)," he said.

Wanting to be closer to Detroit automakers, Weber executives bought out a smaller company in 1996 that made exhaust system parts. The Summerville site became the company's first U.S. location.

The factory began making exhaust manifolds for General Motors, but during its first years of operation, it suffered from low production, said Daniel Weber, vice president and plant manager.

In 2005, company officials started taking the U.S. market more seriously. President and owner Albert Weber, Daniel's dad, sent his son to reorganize the facility and add to its staff of only five workers.

The company remodeled its 26,000-square-foot building and began adding more modern equipment. They also had to strengthen the building's foundation to support the heavy machinery.

$10 million expansion

Now, executives are planning a $10 million expansion that would almost double the facility's size. The new area will house machinery to make connecting rods,another vital engine piece that attaches the crankshaft to the pistons. Officials hope to break ground on the addition by February, allowing workers to turn out the first rods in late summer.

German executives also are weighing a larger, long-term expansion that would move the company's operation to North Charleston's Ingleside tract, which the company bought in 1997 for $18 million.

The wooded, 1,823-acre property borders Interstate 26 between Ashley Phosphate Road and Ladson Road. The company is weighing whether to build a much larger plant on the tract for itself or if another company could make better use of the land, said Daniel Weber, adding that details are still being worked out.

Precision parts are the company's speciality. There are more than 2,000 parts to an engine, Weber explained, but only five key pieces make up the structure's main body: the engine block, cylinder head, crankshaft, connecting rods and camshafts.

"These may not be as exciting as other parts, but it's really the heart of the engine," he said.

Only a handful of companies in the world supply crankshafts to major U.S. automakers because the process is so labor-intensive and precise, Weber said. For example, the machines in Summerville shape the parts using measurements in microns — one one-millionth of a meter.

As the machines chip away at each 53-pound crankshaft, the steel easily can bend out of shape. The pieces have to be inspected after each of seven shaping processes.

"It's so complex and difficult to machine," Weber said. "You have to have very skilled people."

Hiring mode

Since becoming plant manager, Weber has boosted employment to about 35 workers. Executives want to hire about 50 more workers mostly from the local community by 2009 to accommodate the expansion.

"We're looking for those types of jobs," said Jim Friar. "When you look at the various sectors of jobs ... you find that those involving the production of auto parts are higher-paying jobs."

The county's largest industrial employer, Robert Bosch Corp., also supports major automakers by making anti-lock brake systems and fuel injectors. That German company's factory off Dorchester Road employs about 2,300 people.

Weber executives have asked county officials for incentives that would help with the plant's expansion. The proposed fee-in-lieu-of-tax arrangement has made it through at least one reading, and county officials say they're optimistic that the incentives will be approved.

"With a company like Albert Weber, you are helping a company with a global reputation for high-quality production in automobile parts," Friar said. "That helps to build the reputation of the county and the region."

Daniel Weber said his smaller company is attractive to major automobile companies because their workers aren't part of the United Auto Workers union, so the company's labor costs are lower.

Analyst Erich Merkle, who oversees forecasting for automotive consultant IRN Inc., doesn't believe larger companies are trying to outsource work to smaller, nonunion firms.

Most big companies don't make highly specialized parts such as connecting rods and crankshafts themselves, he said.

However, Merkle noted, Detroit's biggest automakers tend to support smaller, emerging companies that will boost competition and could lower the cost of parts. In some cases, the Big Three auto manufacturers have selected suppliers whose bids on a project are higher-priced just to keep one supplier from dominating the market.

"(Automakers) have no problem welcoming a new competitor into the market," he said.

Merkle added that the U.S. likely will see other foreign automotive suppliers boost their operations in step with the weak U.S. dollar.

As the country's currency loses value, the exchange rate gives European companies more buying power. That trend has prompted some automakers abroad to build or expand their facilities here, Merkle said.

"The strengthening of the euro has not been good for European automakers and their suppliers. You almost have to have operations here," he said.

Daniel Weber noted that the exchange rate played a very small role in the company's decision to expand. "We would have done it anyway," he said.