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One Piece at a Time, but from Different Places

August 17, 2017
In 1976, Johnny Cash released his final number-one hit, a song about sneaking car parts out of a Detroit automobile manufacturing plant a single piece at a time, building a one-of-a-kind car that “didn’t cost me a dime.” 
While times have changed and manufacturing processes are not as vertically integrated as they once were, the idea of building durable goods “one piece at a time” rings truer today than ever. In fact, most vehicles include components that have traveled vast distances to be assembled at one final point. 
Under One Roof No More
Cash’s lyrics resonated decades ago because many automakers owned both the manufacturing plant and as many pieces as possible of the supply chain leading to its floors. In some cases, cars were built “one piece at a time” from components created under a single roof. 
German automaker BMW, whose largest worldwide production facility is in Spartanburg County, is a prime example of how manufacturing has changed since then. The luxury manufacturer’s X6 model, produced in the Upstate facility, requires nearly 76,000 parts from suppliers all over the world. A car’s engine might arrive from Steyer, Austria just as its wire harness is delivered from Mexico, a worldwide effort that comes to fruition at the hands of a South Carolina employee. 
“BMW practices a ‘just in time, just in sequence’ assembly strategy,” says Steve Wilson, media communications specialist for BMW Manufacturing Co. “Primary parts such as seats, front and rear axles, exhausts, even instrument and door panels are made just in time, meaning our suppliers are given notice when the car is called into assembly. At that point, it’s a global group effort to create each vehicle; no two cars we build are alike, so a specific black seat arrives exactly when and where it needs to in our supply chain for that particular order.”
Supplying the Industry
To fulfill these demands and manufacture more than 1,400 vehicles each day, BMW employs 235 American tier one suppliers, 40 of which are here in South Carolina. Many of these 40 suppliers, from Greenville’s Magna Automotive to Gestamp in Union County, require just minutes to deliver their components to the factory floor. The number of tier two suppliers working further down BMW’s supply chain are innumerable, a reality that has contributed to the Upstate developing automotive and materials clusters. 
“We are the sole supplier of wire harnesses for BMW in the Upstate,” says Chip Vogel, DRÄXLMAIER’s Director of Procurement. “Our Duncan location is the headquarters for all of DRÄXLMAIER’s operations in the Americas; we work alongside sister facilities in Mexico and Nicaragua to prepare and deliver the customized components BMW requires. With the company’s focus on the end user, each BMW vehicle is entirely customized. Combinations are well into the millions, but every car they make has some component of ours, and something from the Upstate, in it.”
Creating a Cluster
“There are very few places in the world where you have a vehicle ecosystem,” says Venkat Krovi, Clemson University’s Michelin Endowed Chair in Vehicle Automation. “You have Detroit, and there’s a budding one in Silicon Valley. But we are in the heart of the Southern auto alliance, the so-called ‘New Detroit.’”
“We typically follow our customer,” says Vogel, “so when BMW announced its move to Spartanburg in the early 1990s, several core tier one suppliers moved or expanded their operations into this region. We enjoy being a part of the automotive team here and appreciate the resulting growth that has allowed us to expand in employment and facilities. We feel it’s very important to partner with and prepare for the future; that was DRÄXLMAIER’s main incentive to get into South Carolina when we did.”
A recent study by the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business found there are 305 manufacturing establishments in the state’s automotive cluster. Beyond those facilities, thousands more businesses owe significant parts of their activity to the industry’s widespread presence across South Carolina. Overall, the study concluded, the automotive cluster creates a total economic impact of $27.1 billion and 5.4 percent of the South Carolina’s employment base.
Leading the Way Here and Abroad
With numbers like those, it’s no surprise that South Carolina leads the nation both in tire production and tire exports. Recent investments from Germany’s Continental Tire and China’s Wanli Tire and Giti Tire Group, combined with Michelin’s North American headquarters in Greenville, mean that local handprints can be found on vehicle tires worldwide. 
The Upstate’s connectivity is as evident on BMW’s plant floors and beyond, as businesses across the globe locate and expand in the region. The Department of Commerce estimates that foreign-owned companies now employ more than 125,000 workers in South Carolina; many of these are jobs are in the Upstate’s automotive cluster. Automotive suppliers are in nearly each of the state’s 46 counties, numbering more than 400 in total. 
Connectivity Goes Both Ways
Connectivity goes both ways: the products created in our automotive cluster don’t always stay in-state.
For example, BMW’s Spartanburg plant produced 400,000 cars last year, making “ours the largest BMW plant in the world by volume,” says Wilson. “We export 70 percent of what we build, so Upstate handiwork is transported to about 140 countries. Norfolk Southern built a spur that comes directly into our backyard, so we load that rail line continually, day and night, and then those cars are railed down to Charleston for their final destinations.”
Additionally, our region is also home to automotive suppliers that feed into supply chains for brands such as Toyota, Ford, Dodge, and Honda. Take Seneca’s BorgWarner, for example; the plant opened in 1998 and today employs more than 900 employees who help the company to produce one automotive transfer case ever 23 seconds. 
In Oconee County, Parkway Products Inc. makes the window switches to a Ford F-150 and the windshield wiper cases for a Nissan Altima. U.S. Engine Valve employs over 300 and produces engine valves used in Honda, Nissan, Toyota and Subaru models.
Spartanburg County’s DRÄXLMAIER supplies GM, Volkswagen Audi and Mercedes with components crafted in their Duncan facility, where 1,100 Upstate employees send 50 trucks of components to BMW alone each day. 
“As they say in real estate, ‘location, location, location,’” Krovi says. When it comes to the Upstate and its role in modern automotive manufacturing, “the assets are in place.” 
The Upstate is proud to be home to the many suppliers and manufacturers who fuel our region’s auto cluster, and happy to play a significant role in the creation of vehicles driven around the world. Building cars may no longer look much like it did in Johnny Cash’s day, but it’s shaping our state powerfully all the same. 
TOPICS: Existing Industry, Manufacturing, Automotive