The resurgence of manufacturing in the U.S. over the past decade has stirred discussion around a number of issues. Two of these issues are: the effect of automation on returning jobs and the location of plants. The new Flex-N-Gate plant in Detroit is a prime example of a facility that mixes high levels of automation and human interaction. It is also located in an area in need of economic revitalization.
Flex-N-Gate’s Detroit plant, which opened in the fall of 2018, is a 454,000-sq-ft greenfield facility that makes plastic and metal parts, via injection molding and stamping, for the Ford Ranger truck. Management expects the plant to achieve some $140-$150 million in annual sales.
Purchased by Shahid Kahn in 1978, Flex-N-Gate now supplies most major automotive manufacturers, including Ford, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, General Motors, Nissan, Toyota and Honda, with products ranging from front and rear lighting systems, metal automotive body structures, interior plastics, exterior metals, and mechanical assemblies such as lift gate assemblies. The company has 25,000 employees and 60 plants located around the world. It recorded $6.8 billion in sales in 2017.
According to Bill Beistline, executive vice president of manufacturing at the Flex-N-Gate Detroit plant, the company is the seventh largest automotive industry supplier in North America, and the 33rd largest globally. “Flex-N-Gate has 95 percent of the market for truck rear and front ends,” he added.
The idea for Flex-N-Gate’s newest plant in Detroit originated in a meeting with Detroit city officials in 2016 around the idea of bringing manufacturing back into Detroit proper. The plant is located in an area known as the I-94 development district. Beistline noted the initial plan for the plant estimated that it would bring 450 jobs to the area. The plant currently employs some 700 workers.
“This is the first new factory built in Detroit in 20 years,” he said. “Our hope for it is to have a positive effect on the area.”
“It’s been hard to find people locally who have manufacturing experience or who are technically competent," he added. "But we’ve made a concerted effort to hire Detroiters.” To help prepare local workers for jobs in the plant, all employees go through a 30-hour training class prior to starting work.
"I believe in the people of Detroit and the rebirth of the city, and it's absolutely a joy and a pleasure and a privileget o be a small part of that," Khan told the Detroit Free Press in 2017, shortly after the groundbreaking ceremony for the Flex-N-Gate Detroit facility.The article notes that the area of Detroit in which the Flex-N-Gate facility is located is reported to have the highest rate of unemployment in the city.
I recently had a chance to tour the Flex-N-Gate Detroit factory as part of a group hosted by Siemens during the annual Manufacturing in America event in the city. The factory uses the Siemens TIA Portal control panel to manage the plant’s approved components list and standards. The Portal is also used to recommend electrical architectures and common panels that the company can use in its other plants.
“Siemens is an accepted global platform that open us up to other manufacturing platforms, like those from Schuler,” said Beistline. “Schuler uses all Siemens controls for its presses and the Detroit plant houses three servo-driven Schuler presses and four mechanical Schuler presses.”