It’s a familiar refrain: a manufacturing company assembles its products in the United States but ships the parts from China or Mexico to keep costs down. But two years ago, Ficosa, a Spanish company that makes exterior rearview mirrors for OEMs including Ford, GM, Nissan and Volkswagen, flipped the story around. The company decided it would be more cost-effective to rebuild its facility in Tennessee with state-of-the art technology and expand its workforce to bring parts production in–house.
Last week, the company announced it will add 500 workers to its current workforce of 400 in Tennessee. It will close its old plant in Crossville, Tenn.--which it acquired when it purchased a company called Delbar in 2008—and move 40 minutes away to a new $50 million facility in Cookeville, a city of about 30,000.
“We decided about two years ago we needed to choose a location in the United States that would become our center for manufacturing,” says Fred Zicard, vice president of Ficosa North America. “We needed good manufacturing technology that would keep us competitive and be attractive to our customers.”
Cookeville, in the heart of the mid South automotive corridor, got the nod because of its proximity to both OEM manufacturing sites and a workforce pipeline that includes Tennessee Technological University and a high school that has an advanced manufacturing curriculum.
Production of aluminum die cast brackets, currently purchased either in Mexico or Asia, will move to the 270,000 square foot facility, says Zicard.
“It’s kind of exciting,” says Zicard. “We’ve all heard about the exodus of jobs, and now we have them being repatriated.”
Lighting production for the rearview mirrors is also moving in-house. “A lot of mirrors now have ground illumination and turn signals,” says Zicard. “Those are items we typically buy out of Asia as well, but we’re going to be producing them in Cookeville. We’ll have a clean room and assembly there.”
Technology in the new plant includes a state-of-the-art dryer and feeding system for resin and an injection molding machines with robotic assist for loading and unloading, “which keeps people from having to actually reach inside the machine,” says Zicard. “And the paint line is going to be fully automated. It’s a lousy work environment,” so robots will do the dirty work.
Last year, Panasonic took a 49% stake in Ficosa. “We’re very closely working with Panasonic to bring on new technology,” says Zicard.
Smart mirrors will be a priority at Cookeville, including an inside rearview mirror with a camera display, which has driver assistance features and a wider field of view than a convential mirror.
Once the lines are installed this summer, the real work begins: validating the software and getting the OEMs to sign off on everything, including the proper paint hues. “It’ s a long process to get color approval from our customers, so it will be some time in the next year before we’re actually painting parts for our customers,” says Zicard.
In the meantime, he’s got 500 people to hire, for a slew of positions: warehouse help, assembly, maintenance, engineering and—especially—IT people to integrate all the software. All the workers at the old plant have been offered jobs in the new facility, and most have accepted.
“It’s going to be a very quick ramp-up between now and September,” he says.