A Wooster-based manufacturer wants to come between your car or truck engine and its automatic transmission.
Actually, chances are pretty good it is already there.
LuK USA, a division of German-based manufacturer Schaeffler Group, is expanding and improving its big manufacturing and research and development complex outside Wooster that specializes in torque converters — an essential piece of machinery that transmits power from an engine to an automatic transmission. The company figures its products are in every 12th vehicle made annually worldwide — about 2 million vehicles out of 24 million.
The Wooster facility likes what it sees coming in the world of automotive technology.
LuK has about 1,250 employees at its 100-acre Wooster property off Old Airport Road; about 850 are in production working three shifts and about 170 people are involved in research and development. Sales this year are estimated to hit more than $384 million and grow strongly over the next several years as well. Parent company Schaeffler has about 74,000 employees globally.
The company expects the Wooster employment figures to grow, too, over the next several years. It owns open farmland at its rear where it can expand its physical plant as well.
“We’re not just a manufacturing site,” said Mark McGrath, president, Transmission Systems North America.
The complex is a one-stop, self-contained shop — in corporate-speak, it is largely “vertically integrated.” In addition to manufacturing products, the facility designs and makes its own tools and it develops and uses sophisticated technologies for its own internal use. Researchers at the Wooster facility have hundreds of patents to their names.
Meanwhile, each day more than 280 tons of steel enter the complex at one area with finished torque converters coming out at another spot. Executives say metal stamping is the facility’s core technology, with torque converters making up 95 percent of what is made at the LuK plant. Besides being used in North America, the Wooster-made torque converters are exported to Europe and Asia.
Ford is its top customer, followed by General Motors, Allison Transmission, Hyundai, Fiat and others, including off-road sport vehicle maker Polaris.
Business is booming, executives said this week at a media event in Wooster. The Wayne County plant expects to make about 1.9 million torque converters this year and says it will boost production over the next several years to meet demand.
Driving the boom are ever-more-stringent fuel economy and environmental standards, they said. Improved torque converters help automakers get better fuel and power efficiency to meet the higher standards, they said.
And as a result, LuK and Schaeffler project strong growth over the next several years at Wooster.
“We’re gaining market share. We’re growing rather quickly,” McGrath said. “As we grow, we’ve grown our manufacturing footprint.”
The company has been forced to evolve over the years, starting when it was largely a maker of clutches used in manual transmissions. In order to survive as people began preferring automatic transmissions more and more to manual, LuK had to change its business model to emphasize torque converters.
“We started with clutches,” McGrath said. “We’re now moving our technology, our know-how, to inside the transmission.”
And the company is looking ahead to upcoming vehicle technologies, including increased use of alternative drive systems such as gas-electric hybrids and even all-electric vehicles, he and others said. LuK needs to keep up with vehicle manufacturers that are introducing smaller, turbocharged engines that meet tightening fuel and pollution standards while delivering the power that customers want, they said.
LuK is developing smaller, lighter torque converters, with its new generation model measuring 30 percent smaller than the previous one, now in production, said Patrick Lindemann of product development.
“Today, people kill for 5 percent or higher fuel economy improvement,” he said. “At the end of the day, we don’t want to give up performance.”
There is a global trend to smaller, yet ever more-complex vehicles that depend on computers to run, said Philip George, director of Advanced Development for Schaeffler Group North America.
While the Wooster plant makes vehicle components, the company needs to understand how these increasingly complex vehicle systems operate, George said. That’s where the R&D department comes into play.
“The complexity of the scope of what we supply is amazing,” George said. Complicating matters is that changes to one part of a component can affect, for better or worse, other parts of a system, he said.
LuK researchers look to find designs that save fuel, reduce emissions and reduce vibrations, he said. A lot of the changes involve finding ways to reduce friction, he said.
Wooster researchers test products and concepts on custom-altered current North American vehicles, he said.
LuK’s R&D team took one vehicle that in stock form got a combined 24 miles per gallon city/highway driving and made changes that resulted in the vehicle getting a combined 27.7 mpg, meaning it meets upcoming 2020 standards, George said. The company built other test demonstrator vehicles, including a model that can run solely on electricity.
Internal combustion engines will be around for a long time but will incorporate new technologies such as start-stop systems and hybrid drivetrains, George said.
“We are investing heavily to be well placed in any of these areas,” he said.
Even if one change in a component results in a half-percent fuel savings, George said, “It all adds up at the end of the day, even if it is only bits and pieces.”
Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or firstname.lastname@example.org.