Monday, January 16, 2006

State-of-the-art motoring: A look into Hyundai's new Alabama Plant

State-of-the-art motoring By David Irvin Montgomery Advertiser At the technical center's diagnostics area, engineers test cars for durability. This machine continuously opens and shuts car doors to simulate many years of wear and tear on the vehicles. SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich. -- The Alabama delegation got an extremely rare inside look at the Hyundai-Kia America Technical Center in this rural Michigan township Monday. The $68 million facility officially opened in October and the operations there have been mired in secrecy. At the grand opening, journalists were constrained to a small area of the property, Hyundai officials said. But on Monday, state and local Alabama leaders, along with an Advertiser reporter, were granted extensive access to the technical center, which drives the technical end of Hyundai's competitive strategy. "It was state-of-the-art equipment that they had," said Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright. "I was impressed with the building itself. It had a lot of modern amenities." Hyundai officials said the modern amenities and advanced engineering tools are there to elevate the carmaker to a place of prominence in the North American market. The 200,000-square-foot facility currently has 150 workers -- many of them engineers -- but that number should grow to 300 to 350 in the next few years, officials said. In room after room, engineers were breaking down the competition's cars, testing Hyundai safety features, working toward reducing emissions and inspecting the stress fractures in metal. In one room, car doors were opened repeatedly and slammed shut, and the Alabama group watched a 10-pound model of a human head fired into the inside wall of a car. "People don't realize how much work goes into the cars. They just get that car at the final point of sale," said Kerry Christopher, a media relations manager for Hyundai. "It's not like anything else in the world because you are aiming at something that hasn't happened yet." But to aim into the future often means looking at the past. Hyundai officials are using the HATCI facilty to reverse engineer competitors' cars in an effort to catch up quickly. John Juriga, a senior engineering manager at HATCI, said Hyundai is not ashamed of "benchmarking," or reverse engineering, other automakers' cars. That was evident this past Sunday at the North American International Auto Show, when the company unveiled its new 2007 Santa Fe and said it was benchmarked off Lexus and Volvo vehicles in the same class. "We are a humble company," said Juriga Monday while standing in a room at HATCI full of racks and racks of dismantled car parts from other manufacturers. "We don't just want to take a nibble, we want to take a bite," he said. Hyundai officials have used aggressive rhetoric in recent days explicitly or implicitly targeting Japanese automaker Toyota, which has one of the largest market shares in the country. Bob Cosmai, the president and CEO of Hyundai Motor Co., said the new Santa Fe, Hyundai's crossover SUV, would come in thousands of dollars less than the Toyota Highlander. And he said with North American sales approaching 500,000, "we are definitely on their radar screen." And Juriga said, "People compare us to where Toyota was 20 years ago, but we don't want to take 20 years to get to where Toyota is today." However, one industry analyst said Hyundai, even though it is growing sales nicely, should be prepared to wait. "It's not going to happen overnight," said Erich Merkle, a forecaster for auto industry research firm IRN. "I know there is a lot of aggressive talk on the part of Hyundai, but in all honesty, I don't see how they can grow any faster than Toyota did in the last 15 or 20 years." But he added, "I know for a fact that Honda and Toyota are looking over their shoulders at Hyundai." In December, the governor of Michigan announced that HATCI will launch a $90 million expansion at its site near Ann Arbor, adding hundreds more jobs to the area. Bright and others said they wish the HATCI had located in Montgomery, but admits the local and state incentives offered by Michigan were too steep for Montgomery to handle, especially after so many incentives were offered to bring the Hyundai plant to Montgomery. Always remember to visit for latest deals available Gary Rome Hyundai , Hyundai Accessory Store and Hyundai Performance Auto Parts.

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