Global power: Alabama engine operations fill key role for automakers

Alabama is not only one of the top producers of vehicles in the U.S., it’s also a major source of the power under their hoods.

Last year, state manufacturers combined to turn out more than 1.75 million engines, and those assembly lines continue to achieve new milestones this year.

Leading the pack is Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama (TMMAL), which produced a record-high 702,014 engines in 2016, an 11 percent increase from the previous year.

The $864 million engine plant supplies engines for six different Toyota vehicles, and in late February it marked the completion of its 5 millionth engine since opening in 2003.

Toyota’s Alabama operation produced its 5 millionth engine last month. (Toyota Alabama)

Meanwhile, Hyundai and Honda operate significant engine lines at their Alabama auto assembly plants. The engines are used in the vehicles built at the plants, and Hyundai also ships a portion of its engine output to the Kia auto assembly plant in West Point, Ga.

At Hyundai in Montgomery, last year’s total engine production is estimated at 682,700, while workers at Honda’s Talladega County factory built more than 369,000 engines.

Additionally, Navistar produces truck engines in Huntsville.

Powering growth

Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, said it’s no surprise that the state’s engine operations are running at a high level in volume, quality and performance, amid an overall surge of activity in the auto industry.

Gov. Robert Bentley looks at a V-6 engine produced on Honda’s automated engine line in Alabama. (Honda Alabama)

“Last year, for the second year in a row, Alabama’s auto workers produced more than 1 million vehicles, and they have produced more than 10 million overall since the industry launched 20 years ago,” he said.

The success of the engine operations in particular underscores the deep roots automakers are putting down in Alabama, as well as the faith they have in the state’s workforce, Canfield continued.

“Time and again, these automakers are investing more money and adding new jobs in their Alabama plants, and much of that is supporting engine manufacturing,” he said.

“It is a testament to the skill of their local employees, who are entrusted with producing some of the most innovative, complex and critical components of a vehicle.”

3,000 engines a day

Toyota’s engine operation in Huntsville is a key piece of the automaker’s international supply chain and one of its largest engine supply plants worldwide.

“We continue to be the only Toyota plant globally that produces 4-cylinder, V6 and V8 engines under one roof,” said David Fernandes, president of TMMAL. “We build engines for six of the 12 Toyota vehicles produced in North America, so about a third of all Toyota vehicles produced in North America are powered by engines built right here in Alabama.”

Toyota’s Alabama-made engines are shipped to auto plants in Indiana, Kentucky and Texas, where they are installed in the Camry, RAV4, Highlander, Tacoma, Tundra and Sequoia. The 1,500-member workforce at TMMAL builds about 3,000 engines per day, about six times as many as they did when the plant opened. The output has grown as the company has done four expansions in Huntsville.

“We couldn’t do that without our team members, focusing on safety and making sure we produce the best-quality engines,” Fernandes said.

Sophisticated systems

Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama produces engines for the Hyundai-branded vehicles it assembles in Montgomery, including the Sonata, Elantra and Santa Fe, as well as the vast majority of the vehicles rolling off the Kia assembly lines in West Point, Ga.

The automaker employs about 550 people at its Montgomery engine line, which turns out three different models, including a turbo-charged version.

Hyundai’s Alabama operation produces engines for the automaker’s Montgomery assembly line and Kia’s plant in Georgia. (Hyundai Alabama)

The cooperation between Hyundai and Kia, an affiliate, has also been seen recently with the move of the Santa Fe back to the Alabama auto assembly lines.

The SUV was produced in Montgomery from 2005 to 2010, when output was transferred to the Kia plant. Last year, it returned to Alabama following a $52 million investment in Montgomery.

At Honda Manufacturing of Alabama, a sophisticated new engine facility opened nearly two years ago. The $71.4 million line has 250 workers and 92 robots, who can turn out 1,500 V6 engines per day.

Highly automated systems perform a wide range of parts handling and installation functions. For example, a robotic station along the line can assemble more than 9,000 pistons daily – a cycle time of six seconds per piston. And there’s a fully automated piston installation process, a first for any Honda engine plant in the world.

Honda Alabama President Jeff Tomko called the line the most advanced facility of its kind at any Honda operation worldwide.

“This facility embodies the tremendous amount of confidence that Honda has in our Alabama team – a team that can now more quickly respond to customer demand for light truck vehicles equipped with some of the most dependable, powerful, fuel-efficient and technologically advanced engines in our industry,” Tomko said at a grand opening.

Honda workers build an engine for every vehicle built at the plant.

‘Incredible’ milestone

In celebration of its big milestone last week, Toyota had a little fun with the numbers.

So what do 5 million engines look like?

  • 5 million engines equals the weight of three Empire State Buildings.
  • Lined up, the 5 million engines would stretch from Huntsville to Los Angeles.
  • That’s enough engines to supply just about every vehicle registered in Alabama.
  • If each engine powered a vehicle 200,000 miles, the 5 million engines would go from the earth to the sun and back more than 5,000 times.

Toyota has expanded its Alabama engine plant four times, pushing total investment to $864 million. (Toyota Alabama)

“Five million, that’s incredible. You just don’t think in those terms,” said Theodore Bridgeforth, a group leader and original employee who helped bring that first engine out in 2003. “It was special, seeing the first engine go from months of planning and design to actually coming off the line. And while we now make a lot more product, the same care and quality goes into each engine – that has not changed.”

To celebrate the milestone, Toyota will donate $50,000 to the Huntsville Library Foundation, supporting the North Huntsville Library project.

“On one hand it is hard to fathom we have built 5 million engines,” Fernandes said. “However, when you take into account the dedication and craftsmanship of our team members, it isn’t so hard to believe. They have met every challenge and continue to build an incredible product in a safe and efficient way.”

This story originally appeared on the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Made in Alabama website.