Kamtek’s $80 million aluminum casting plant is on schedule to be completed in Birmingham in less than three months and the automotive supplier expects to be producing parts for BMW as early as this fall.
To reach that milestone, the plant has been balancing construction with equipment deliveries and – perhaps most importantly – worker training.
Eight of Kamtek’s Alabama employees have been in Germany training on high-pressure aluminum casting so they will be ready at the same time the building and equipment are.
The 148,000-square-foot casting plant will employ 120 and initially make parts for BMW and Mercedes-Benz but the plan is to add more automakers to the list as the operation grows, according to John Hackett, general manager of Kamtek in Birmingham.
“It gives us an opportunity to widen our product base with our customers,” Hackett said.
He said increased use of high-pressure aluminum cast parts will enable automakers to reduce weight by up to 45 percent, making cars more fuel-efficient.
Kamtek is known for its successful stamping operations at the Pinson Valley plant. The subsidiary of Canadian-based automotive supplier Magna Ltd. has operated its stamping and assembly operations in the Valley East Industrial Park since 1997, locating there as the former Ogihara to supply Mercedes. It has expanded multiple times. Magna purchased Ogihara in 2008.
Since then, Kamtek has invested $473 million in the Birmingham campus, including the purchase of the then-vacant Del Monte warehouse and its 36 acres three years ago. Employment at the facilities has bloomed from 293 employees at the time of the Ogihara purchase to more than 900 today.
Hackett said the production of high-pressure aluminum castings adds a new dimension to what Kamtek can do in Alabama, but it also is initially a challenge.
“We have to prove ourselves,” Hackett said. “I know what we’re capable of at this plant, but our customers know this is a new process and we’re going to have to prove we can do it for them. I know we will.”
Patrick Murphy, senior project manager with Alabama Power’s Economic Development office, said Kamtek’s expansion is big for the industry at large, not just the company.
“For a major supplier like Kamtek to bring high-pressure aluminum casting to Alabama really elevates Birmingham and the state in their automotive capability,” Murphy said. “The automotive industry is looking to make lighter cars without sacrificing strength, and this process allows for that. Kamtek is showing the rest of the world that Alabama workers can meet new challenges as the auto industry faces them.”
In August, Birmingham and Jefferson County agreed to sell Kamtek 78 acres in Valley East Industrial Park to allow construction of the new plant. Kamtek said the size of the plant could grow to 400,000 square feet by 2025 if more business is added.
By 2019, Kamtek will have more than $1 billion invested in Birmingham and have close to 1,300 workers, based on current projections.
For now, Hackett said the focus is on getting the initial $80 million casting plant and its 120 workers able to safely produce high-quality BMW parts.
“We have to be able to take that first step,” he said. “When you’re dealing with molten aluminum, you have to be mindful of everyone’s safety.”
Hackett said the Kamtek team has been preparing its processes – from the way it delivers molten aluminum to a more efficient method of changing out dyes and cabling – to make the Birmingham facility the most modern of its kind.