A year ago, it was difficult for Eaton Corp. to put a positive spin on its decision to close its fuel-vapor valve manufacturing plant in Ann Arbor, MI.
The 5-story building on S. First Street downtown had employed generations of local residents. Eventually, the plant started producing vapor valves for fuel tanks, and the much larger Eaton purchased the plant from GT Products Inc. in 1998. The plant had 500 employees at the time.
But it became difficult for the Ann Arbor facility to compete with the world's low-cost regions. In 2000, the market for fuel-vapor valves changed as the federal government implemented stricter evaporative emission requirements. New technologies were arriving to meet the mandates and to satisfy auto maker demands for simplified designs that eliminated components.
Last July, Eaton closed the plant and moved component manufacturing to Reynosa, Mexico. But Eaton did not abandon Ann Arbor. The 100-some engineers and technicians who shared the First Street building have moved to the outskirts of town to a new location that serves as Eaton's new Fuel Vapor Systems technical center.
There, engineers develop and validate prototypes for next-generation valves that regulate fuel flow and evaporative emissions.
Each year, Eaton produces about 45 million of the components, namely on-board refueling vapor recovery (ORVR) valves, valves designed to prevent leakage in rollover accidents, check valves and fuel-level sensors. Eaton says it has about 50% of the North American market, most of it with Detroit's Big Three auto makers.
ORVR systems have been required by U.S. clean air standards for U.S. passenger cars since 2000 and light trucks since 2003. The devices consist of a series of valves and sensors designed to contain vapors during refueling.
Before the arrival of ORVR valves, the equivalent of 1 cup (0.2L) of liquid fuel was emitted into the atmosphere every time a car was refueled, says Robert Benjey, Eaton's product innovation manager at the new technical center.
In addition, more hydrocarbons — a key component in smog — were emitted during refueling than by burning an entire tank of fuel, Benjey says.
Today, however, with a plethora of valves to contain vapors, a mere 0.2 grams (0.007 oz.) of hydrocarbons are emitted during refueling.
Since 2002, Eaton has been producing its patented “Ribbon” Fuel-Limit Vent Valve (FLVV), developed in Ann Arbor.
The new valve is smaller than a conventional ORVR valve and can be integrated into the fuel pump module inside the tank, eliminating the need to punch a hole in the fuel tank.
The new valve is selling at a rate of 15 million per year and helps OEMs achieve federal partial zero emission vehicle ratings, while allowing vehicle buyers to safely add more fuel to their tanks.
In addition to auto makers, Eaton sells the Ribbon valve to Tier 1 fuel-tank suppliers, including Visteon Corp., Inergy Automotive Systems, TI Automotive and Kautex Textron.
Closing the Ann Arbor manufacturing operation was difficult, but Eaton officials say the new strategy to manufacture in Mexico while maintaining intensive engineering in metro Detroit is more viable long-term.
The company says about 90% of the displaced manufacturing employees have landed other jobs, are in school or are pursuing other careers. “There's no question that moving manufacturing to Mexico was the right move,” Benjey says. “We've seen terrific gains in productivity.”
Eaton now is contemplating growth for its fuel-vapor valve operations internationally. “We're looking for a European and Asian customer base,” Benjey says. “We need capacity in China and maybe in Europe.”