Betting big on advanced manufacturing in Detroit

After decades of urban blight, the Motor City is rising again. manufacturing in Detroit is back, with innovative auto, tech, and even shipbuilding facilities popping up in industrial zones.

Image courtesy of Jeff Link.

Manufacturing in Detroit interior of a factory

Jeff Link

June 12, 2018

min read
  • Detroit is experiencing a revitalization, including a resurgence of advanced manufacturing in the city.

  • Companies like ArcelorMittal Tailored Blanks and Flex-N-Gate have repurposed old factories, investing in extensive renovations to adapt them for modern manufacturing needs.

  • LIFT, a materials R&D facility, is an example of a public-private model, sharing its space with federal departments, academics, and member companies.

Detroit is almost unrecognizable from the city it was five years ago. There are skyscrapers being built, tech companies such as Microsoft and WeWork setting up shop, new sports arenas, hotels, affordable housing developments, and riverfront improvements. All told, according to a report of the city, greater downtown Detroit has seen $7 billion in new investment since 2013.

The revitalization of the Motor City’s inner core is hardly breaking news, but a less publicized aspect of the transformation is the quiet rebirth of advanced manufacturing in Detroit. The I-94 Industrial Park northeast of the city contains a 186-acre tax-incentivized zone where auto manufacturers and suppliers—including Flex-N-Gate, ArcelorMittal Tailored Blanks, Sakthi Group, and Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow (LIFT)—claim turf in an underutilized area that was once a main artery for the auto industry.

During the Urban Land Institute’s Spring Meeting in Detroit this past May, Basil Cherian, senior policy adviser in the City of Detroit Mayor’s Office, along with Damon Jordan, senior real-estate manager for the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, led a tour of the largely vacant east side area where the city is seeking to grow its manufacturing base.

Manufacturing in Detroit office space
Detroit has the greatest concentration of manufacturing facilities in the United States, many of them including office space. Image courtesy of Jeff Link.

“We’re fortunate to be located in the middle of 12 assembly plants in the metro Detroit area,” Cherian says. “Because of how manufacturing has evolved and become more focused on the just-in-time model, there is a benefit to being a tier-one supplier and being close to the end stage of production.”

In addition to an outlay of nearly 2,500 advanced-manufacturing facilities in and around the city (the greatest concentration in the United States), the Detroit metropolitan area is home to more than 15,000 industrial robots; the largest engineering workforce in the nation; and the headquarters of Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler, according to the city’s website.

These could be important assets for a city looking to spur job growth and remain at the forefront of automotive innovation as electric and autonomous vehicles gain ground. “We are a city that makes things,” Cherian says. “That’s what we are known for, and that’s what we want to continue to be known for, even as we see changes in technology and the way manufacturing is done.”

A glimpse of those changes was on display at the hulking, repurposed Detroit factory of ArcelorMittal Tailored Blanks, a US subsidiary of the Luxembourg-based steel manufacturer. The 90-year-old, 317,000-square-foot facility, which produced submarine engines and tank parts during World War II, underwent an extensive $83 million renovation led by J.B. Donaldson Company and opened for production in February 2016, says Steve Goudreau, the company’s regional IT manager.

Manufacturing in Detroit repurposed factory
Many of Detroit’s repurposed factories offer the right space and location but need extensive renovation. Image courtesy of Jeff Link.

The extensive renovation required wrapping the building in corrugated steel and removing asbestos in the ceiling and dead pigeons from the factory floor. But the open floor plan, high ceiling, and prime location in the supply chain made it ripe for adaptive reuse.

“The number of suppliers, vendors, and customers here makes it a strong center for manufacturing, especially automotive,” Goudreau says. “We had a choice of whether to expand an existing facility in Ohio or open a new facility. Ultimately, we decided on 8650 Mt. Elliott. It had both the necessary square footage for manufacturing and over 30,000 square feet of office space.”

Now, robots the size of shipping containers quietly lift and rotate ablated steel blanks, which are laser-welded into lightweight door rings and pillars for cars and trucks. The facility produces these parts for companies such as Fiat Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, and Honda.

The company’s Detroit unit, Goudreau adds, spent 14 months working with Honda to develop an inner and outer door ring for the 2019 Acura RDX. Laser welding, guided by computer modeling, allows some panels of the steel door to remain thicker than others, depending on their position on the car. This technology reduced the weight of the vehicle, thereby improving fuel efficiency and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, and improves crash performance and vehicle handling.

Flex-N-Gate also launched operations in the I-94 Industrial Park, says Bill Beistline, a vice president at the company. Although there is nothing particularly innovative about the injection-molding machines and stamping presses used at the auto supplier’s $184 million, 460,000-square-foot facility, the move to a largely undeveloped area of the city is rare.

“It’s innovative from the perspective that no one else is doing inner-city development like this,” Beistline says.

The factory, scheduled to open in October 2018, will employ close to 500 workers, and through a specialized contract, it will produce metal and plastic parts for the Ford Ranger. These will be delivered to Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, about 30 miles away. “With a shortage of trucks and higher fuel costs, the closer we are to customers, the less spending on docking and transportation,” Beistline says.

Manufacturing in Detroit LIFT public-private building space model
Demonstrating the public-private model, LIFT’s 100,000-square-foot building shares its R&D space with federal departments, academics, and member companies. Image courtesy of Jeff Link.

Then there’s the public-private model of LIFT, a materials R&D facility in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood that shares its 100,000-square-foot building with the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation. The facility is a federally designated testing and training site supported by the US Department of Defense and US Department of Energy, where university researchers and member companies from different manufacturing industries can test and develop materials for precompetitive R&D and proprietary projects.

LIFT Communications Director Joe Steele says a major focus of the space for LIFT is going to be integrated computational materials engineering. Through computer modeling and early-stage prototyping, partnering universities and member companies investigate lighter, more efficient metals and composite materials.

“It’s lightweighting,” Steele says, “but not how people think of it, which is just as a material swap. For example, in one of our projects, we’re shaving weight from a cast-iron truck component, which is not typically seen as a lightweight material.”

Huntington Ingalls Industries is among the companies using the site, and through working with LIFT, the Mississippi-based shipbuilder has developed a welding sequence using thinner materials to reduce the weight and buckling of the top deck of Coast Guard vessels. It also has found a way to produce ships much faster—three ships every two years, instead of two in the same period.

“If you look at manufacturing, metals are a mature technology,” Steele says. “We’ve been heating and beating metals for thousands of years. But looking at it from a microstructure level, using computer technology, that’s how we innovate.”

Jeff Link

About Jeff Link

Jeff Link is an award-winning journalist covering design, technology and the environment. His work has appeared in Wired, Fast Company, Architect and Dwell.

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