Nexteer – At the wheel

Posted on 24 Aug 2015 by Callum Bentley

Federico Ercoli flies to Poland to learn how automotive manufacturer Nexteer is steering towards its latest accomplishment.

In February, the Greater London Authority announced the population in the UK capital reached 8.6m. Last July, a US census reported that almost 8.5m people live in New York, and at the same time a government report from Hong Kong revealed the Chinese city had 7.2m inhabitants.

All of these cities combined, plus the estimated population of Rio de Janeiro (6.3m in 2014) roughly account for 30m people.

Now try to imagine all four cities (London; New York; Hong Kong, and Rio de Janeiro) and magically substitute humans with steering units – 30m car and truck steering units.

Westminster, London - image courtesy of DFC
In February, the Greater London Authority announced the population in the UK capital reached 8.6m.

It might be hard to picture this somewhat dystopian scenario (which is NOT a Terminator spin-off) and certainly harder trying to imagine steering units queuing up for a cappuccino at a cafè, so let’s not get lost in semi-sci-fi ramblings.

Thirty million. Such is the number of electric power steering (EPS) units produced since 1999 by steering and driveline manufacturer, Nexteer.

“Hitting this significant milestone comes at an exciting time as we celebrate not only how far we’ve come, but also where we’re heading with EPS and other technologies on the path to Advanced Driver Assist Systems and autonomous driving,” Steve Spicer, global product line executive, said.

To celebrate the achievement, the company invited a bunch of UK journalists to its Tychy plant in southern Poland, an area with a long manufacturing tradition and home to one of Fiat’s biggest facilities, along with several other automotive and engineering giants like Yamazaki Mazak. 

I gladly accepted, as successful manufacturing stories always make for good print, especially when the road to success has been particularly bumpy, just like the one for Nexteer.

Manufacturing an automotive single pinion EPS at Nexteer's  Tychy plant.
Manufacturing an automotive single pinion EPS at Nexteer’s Tychy plant.

Founded as Jackson, Church & Wilcox Co. in 1906, the company was bought by GM-owned Buick in 1909. Since then, Nexteer was a part of the GM family until 1998, when GM created Delphi Corporation primarily as an automotive components business and the steering operations became a major business division under its name.

In 1999, Delphi Corporation was spun-off by GM to become an independent, publicly held corporation. Ten years later, Delphi Corporation’s global steering operations were sold back to GM following bankruptcy and were renamed Nexteer Automotive.

Then, in 2010, China-based Pacific Century Motors bought Nexteer from GM and in 2013 they successfully completed an initial public offering (IPO) on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

To discuss Nexteer’s latest endeavours and status, I sat down and spoke with Guilherme Pizzato, general director for the European Division.

“Nexteer just finalised a 2014 calendar year at $3bn of revenue. We’re well established in all regions of the world where the automotive industry is significant. We still have our global headquarters in Saginaw, Michigan and have important operations and customers in the US, South America; Brazil; Europe; Asia; China, and India, with small operations in Korea and Australia,” Pizzato said.

The  automotive laboratory at Nexteer's Tychy plant.
The automotive laboratory at Nexteer’s Tychy plant.

“It sounds all roses,” I thought. “How do you achieve this?” So I started wondering about scale again. With clients like BMW; Fiat Chrysler; Ford; GM; Toyota, and PSA Peugeot Citroen, how big can a company like this be?

Easy: 20 manufacturing plants spread across the globe, five regional engineering centres and 10 customers service centres in North and South America, Europe and Asia with a workforce of 11,000 employees.

Sorry, no androidian examples for this one.

After the customary plant tour, the journalists were encouraged to drive some of the vehicles that feature Nexteer’s EPS units to see them in action. “Watching them in the making is interesting, trying them out is going to be fun,” I thought, especially after noticing a BMW i3 in the parking lot.

“Do you want to try the auto parking function on this one?” product engineering manager, Alexander Murray, asked.

And just like a kid in a candy shop I couldn’t help but stare in awe at the car perfectly parking itself between two other vehicles by just pressing a button. Automatically, I started thinking about what kind of talent is required to develop that kind of technology and if the skills gap is a consistent issue in Poland as well.

“We’re very satisfied, at least here in Poland, that we’re seeing that the job market produces better young engineers. There’s still a lot of people going to engineering schools, so that’s positive. Other areas of the world have more challenges than here, but it’s part of our culture to be focused on people. To retain and attract talent,” Pizzato told me.

After leaving the plant, I had the feeling I stepped out of a fairy tale where all eventually fell into place and left everybody optimistic and lifted. It took Nexteer decades to project this image and reach such standards, but it certainly looks like they are steering in the right direction. For now.