ZF Transmissions Helps Expand the Automotive Cluster in the Upstate

In February, 2011, ground was broken for the construction of a 1 million square foot manufacturing facility of the ZF Group, a German automotive components company. Construction was complete in April of 2012.

The plant is the U.S. manufacturing operation for ZF's 8HP and 9HP transmissions--eight- and nine-speed automatic transmissions for passenger cars that are currently being used by Jaguar, Land Rover, and Chrysler. These transmissions offer up to a 16% gain in fuel efficiency over a 6-speed, and a unique start/stop function shuts off your car's engine when you stop at a red light and starts again when you put your foot on the accelerator, which also increases the fuel efficiency.

According to a company press release, the facility is the largest single venture in ZF's history, with a total estimated investment of $600 million.

"We are honored to present the U.S. home of the automatic transmission," said ZF Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Stefan Sommer, at the official plant opening in Gray Court on July 26, 2013. "This is an important step toward bridging the distance to our customers and having an even better opportunity of accessing North America, the most important foreign market for us."

Although the original plans called for a million square feet and 1200 employees, by the time of the ribbon cutting, those plans had changed. Now, said Dr. Sommer, the footprint would increase by nearly half, to a total of 1.4 million square feet, and the plant would employ an additional 450 workers. The additions are projected to be finished in 2016.

Before the grand opening of the Gray Court plant, ZF hosted a media day event, showcasing innovative driveline, chassis, and steering technologies to more than 50 specialized international journalists. In addition to being able to talk to the ZF experts and seeing the exhibits, they had the opportunity to have a closer look at and experience the technology by testing more than 40 vehicles featuring ZF products.

Workforce Training

The initial workforce training took place through an innovative "Buddy Program" in which experienced, specialized ZF workers from Saarbrucken trained select new U.S. employees. Those employees, in turn, became "multipliers," or trainers for subsequent recruits.

Further workforce training needs are being met through Piedmont Technical College's Center for Advanced Manufacturing, which opened in the summer of 2012. Initially, the plan was to have a dedicated space just for ZF's training needs, but other industrial leaders quickly saw the benefit.

ZF cites the existence of several other automotive supplier companies in the area as well as the proximity of Clemson University for the recruitment of engineers as reasons for choosing the Upstate as the location for their U.S. transmission manufacturing operation.

Sharon Purvis is a freelance writer and editor who makes her home with her husband in Duncan, South Carolina. You can find more of her work at SharonPurvisWrites.com.