DETROIT – The auto industry is chugging along as 2014 proved once again to be a year of growth in vehicle production and sales in North America.
U.S. sales were up 5.8% in 2014 to 16.4 million vehicles, and North American production reached 16.1 million units through November, according to WardsAuto data. North American production reached 16.4 million units in 2013.
For component suppliers such as Schaeffler, the steady increase in volumes has driven investments in new capacity and additional workers to meet customer demand.
Since the dark days of 2009, Schaeffler has hired 3,800 new employees (including 400 engineers), increased content per vehicle 55% and filed some 600 patents, says Bruce Warmbold, president and CEO of Schaeffler Group North America. In 2014, Schaeffler grew its automotive OEM sales 20%.
Times are good.
“Unemployment is low; fuel costs are down, so that’s putting more money in people’s pockets,” Warmbold tells WardsAuto during an interview at the North American International Auto Show here. “Inflation is low; interest rates are low; financing is available.”
Pressed to identify one problem area, he can’t. “It’s hard to pick out one thing that’s negative. But it is a cyclical business, so that day will come. But I don’t think that day will happen in 2015.”
The forecast is encouraging as well. Warmbold says Schaeffler agrees with industry projections that North American vehicle production will continue growing at least 2% annually over the next 10 to 15 years.
Schaeffler owns the INA, FAG and LuK brands, which make, respectively, engine and transmission components and roller bearings; ball, taper, cylindrical and spherical bearings; and clutch, hydraulic and transmission systems.
Warmbold says all three brands have done well in the powertrain sector. Schaeffler is particularly glad to see growth in 8- and 9-speed automatic transmissions: they need lots of thrust needle bearings.
Expansion Continues; Another UniAir Customer
Schaeffler recently opened its third plant in Mexico, dedicated to torque converters. Last week, the supplier announced a $160 million investment and the addition of 400 more workers in the coming years at its South Carolina facilities, which serve all three brands.
The Cheraw, SC, plant produces engine components, as well as the Fiat-designed MultiAir variable valve-control system for Chrysler engines. Schaeffler has been marketing the technology as UniAir to other automakers.
Warmbold says the supplier has an order from another automaker for the technology, and that the customer likely will be identified next year.
Schaeffler expects internal-combustion engines will continue dominating the North American vehicle market. However, Warmbold sees hybrids and electric vehicles gaining momentum.
“Remember, the largest fleet of EVs exists in North America,” he says. “I think the psychological barrier that may exist in some other markets perhaps has been broken here.”
In support of electrified powertrains, Schaeffler presents at the show its latest concept vehicle equipped to comply with pending corporate average fuel-economy mandates.
Based on a ’13 Ford Escape with a production 2.0L EcoBoost 4-cyl. engine, the demonstrator CUV is equipped with a 48V mild-hybrid system that enables a 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km) combined fuel-economy rating.
In addition to electrifying the powertrain, the novel architecture allows components such as auxiliary transmission pumps and electrically driven engine accessories to be eliminated as a cost savings.
The concept vehicle offers a parallel hybrid system with a Schaeffler clutching system that enables independent operation of the engine and accessory chain. Components are laid out to more easily accommodate vehicle model variants. Ride height also has been adjusted for improved aerodynamics.
Warmbold says the concept vehicle should be ready for test drives in the second quarter.
The days of automakers adopting fuel-saving technology “at any price” are over, he says.
While OEMs expect to pay about $100 per vehicle for technology that provides a 1% fuel-economy gain en route to the 2025 CAFE targets, Schaeffler North America Chief Technical Officer Jeff Hemphill says its solution can be had for as little as $50 per vehicle.