Steel stamper Ogihara America Corp. is expanding into aluminum and soon will announce new customers for its Birmingham, Ala., stamping plant.
Last week company officials called reports of new five-year contracts with two automakers 'premature.' But they acknowledged that the plant could see the contracts materialize as soon as late this month. Ogihara has invested approximately $100 million in its two-year-old Birmingham operation, which was built to supply all the steel body panels for the Mercedes-Benz M-class sport-utility line produced in Alabama and Austria.
Kiyoshi Kobayashi, general manager of Ogihara's Alabama Division, said last week the company is spending about $35 million to expand its capacity. The expansion will allow Ogihara to produce aluminum stamped panels as well as steel panels.
'The industry tells us that they plan to go into more aluminum,' Kobayashi said. 'I don't know how far they want to go, but we want to have the flexibility to do both steel and aluminum.'
Ogihara will install a $20 million tandem stamping press line that can accommodate both metals. The size of the press line suggests that Ogihara is planning to produce parts as large as truck lids, tailgates, hoods and inner panels.
Producing aluminum and steel parts on the same press will require two sets of technology to serve the line. Manufacturers typically use magnets to handle steel products on the line, pick up and move large pieces or sort scrap. But aluminum is not magnetic. That metal is handled with vacuum suction.
The move will be Ogihara's first foray into aluminum parts in North America. The transplant's Japanese parent company performs aluminum stamping to customers in that market. But the U.S. subsidiary's operations in Michigan and Alabama offer only steel to a list of customers that includes Ford Motor Co., Honda of America Manufacturing, DaimlerChrysler, Nissan Motor Manufacturing Corp. U.S.A., Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America and others.
The Birmingham plant was launched with 130 employees in 1997 to supply Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc. in Vance, Ala. Since then, the stamper has grown to about 320 employees.
Meanwhile, the Southeast market around it has grown. Earlier this year, customer Honda Motor Co. said it would open a sport-utility plant in Birmingham. Mercedes-Benz also has expanded its production goals by 70 percent over its original target.