- This article is reprinted with permission from the fall 2015 edition of Insights, a publication of Scana Corp. The writer is Editor Jim Poindexter.
Stepping onto the production floor of the recently expanded JTEKT/Koyo plant in Blythewood is akin to entering a small city.
Long blocks of hulking machinery form a skyline that stretches to the far end of the expansive building. Forklifts and electric vehicles pulling carts of polished metal parts hurry along the plant’s main thoroughfare. The place bustles with noise and the activity of busy workers.
This morning, David Green, environmental, health and safety coordinator, is leading a tour of the new facilities. He reminds his visitors to stay in the pedestrian path marked by two painted yellow lines that run along the perimeter of the production areas. Green started working at the plant in 1996, a year after it opened. He was a project manager for the latest expansion, the largest in the plant’s history, and the pride he feels for what’s been accomplished is evident.
“I am extremely proud of the new facility,” Green said. “We put a lot of thought into planning this expansion. We’ve doubled the size of the plant and we now have the space we need to bring in new business.”
JTEKT North America is a major supplier of steering systems, driveline components and bearings to automotive manufacturers in North America. Koyo, the JTEKT brand for bearings, has three manufacturing facilities in the United States, two in South Carolina. Koyo’s bearing plant in Orangeburg has been in operation since 1975.
The Blythewood facility produces wheel hub bearing units for automotive customers, including Toyota, Honda, Ford, General Motors and BMW. Part of a car’s wheel assembly, the hub bearing unit plays a crucial role in the safety and handling characteristics of a vehicle. The plant produces pre-assembled units comprised of bearings, seals and sensors, including the anti-lock brake sensor.
Plant Manager Bobby Howell said the $130 million expansion of the plant is a significant step forward for JTEKT/Koyo.
“This is JTEKT’s only hub bearing manufacturing plant in North America,” Howell said. “It makes us all proud that JTEKT has invested so much into this plant, as well as the local economy. Our goal is to be the number one manufacturer of automotive bearings in the world, and I think this expansion is a stride toward that goal.”
JTEKT announced its plans to expand the Blythewood facility in 2012 after considering other sites in the United States and Mexico. At the time of the announcement, JTEKT Vice President and General Manager Steve McCullough said, “This is a great announcement for our Richland County plant. Many locations were considered for this large capital investment by JTEKT. One of the key reasons we selected this location was the collaborative effort of Richland County, the town of Blythewood, the state of South Carolina and South Carolina Electric & Gas.”
Howell said another important factor was that JTEKT/Koyo recognized the value of the existing technical knowledge of employees at the Blythewood facility.
“The question became, why build a new facility in a different location when we already have the technical expertise here,” Howell said. “There also was a lot of discussion about the potential growth in Richland County and the opportunity to recruit from a larger labor pool.”
Koyo is striving to be an employer of choice in South Carolina, Green said. The plant expansion has increased the number of employees at the plant from about 300 to 420. The company will hire additional workers as production ramps up.
“The expansion project allowed us to add some of the amenities our employees want and prospects look for,” Green said. “We’ve added about 250,000 square feet of new office space, including new training rooms and a mezzanine office area overlooking the production floor. We have a new cafeteria and workout room as well.
“We’re on a push to grow our technical capabilities,” Green said. “We bring in a lot of people at an entry level and give them opportunities to move up. But with new business coming in, we also need engineers and technicians who already have a skill set.”
SCE&G has worked closely with engineers at the Blythewood facility to ensure the reliability of the plant’s power supply as it has grown over the past 20 years. SCE&G provided an infrastructure grant as part of the incentive package for the recent expansion project.
“We have very sophisticated machinery, obviously, so any interruption in power can put us down for hours,” Howell said. “We’ve had a very good relationship with SCE&G over the years.
They’ve been very attentive to our needs.”
Plant personnel moved into the new facility and began installing equipment in May 2014. The expansion project added 12 turning lines, where metal components are prepared for assembly, and four new assembly lines. Six turning lines and three assembly lines are now in operation.
“The main driver of the expansion was the new General Motors business,” Howell said. “While a majority of our business is with Toyota and BMW, the expansion not only gives us the ability to produce parts for GM, but we also have the opportunity for growth with the other automakers.”
The final stop on Green’s tour is the loading area where assembled hub bearing units are readied for shipping. At the end of a long trek around the plant, his visitors are beginning to lag, but Green is still going strong. He guesses he walks ten or more miles each day, every day. He knows every inch of the impressive new facility, and he deserves to be proud.