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Rutherford County, TN Plays to Its Automotive Strengths

Rutherford County's logistical links and experienced workforce draw additional automotive investment and accelerate business for local suppliers.

By Gary Wollenhaupt on May 29, 2014

Record growth among top automotive producers like Nissan North America, Inc. is spurring jobs and investment up and down Tennessee’s automotive supply chain and in Rutherford County. The state leads the nation in auto jobs and industry growth – and the county is a magnet for much of that investment, thanks to its low costs, logistical links and skilled workforce.

The auto industry in the state took off more than 30 years ago, when Nissan opened a plant in Smyrna. Nissan leaders selected the site because of its world-class workforce, as well as the region’s strong investment in its education system and its commitment to seeing businesses thrive. 

“Nissan has seen tremendous growth in the last 30 years due in large part to its ability to retain and recruit a quality workforce in Tennessee,” says Justin P. Saia, spokesperson for Nissan. “The success of the company is directly tied to the people it hires.”

The opening of the Smyrna vehicle assembly plant in 1983 was a groundbreaking moment, bringing auto production to Tennessee for the first time. From the first white pickup truck to roll off the assembly line to the 10th-million one with the debut of the Rogue compact crossover, the Smyrna plant now produces six model platforms.

With Nissan’s aggressive growth and localization strategy in the Americas, the manufacturer is even more reliant on its Tennessee operations for its success globally. The company recently added 900 jobs to support domestic production of the Rogue in Smyrna, and has also invested heavily to produce the all-electric, zero-emission LEAF at the plant.

“Over the last 30 years, the Smyrna plant has grown significantly – and transformed from a domestic manufacturer to a global one,” Saia says. “In just the last year, Smyrna has become home to the country’s largest lithium-ion automotive battery plant – and a paint plant that sets new standards for energy efficiency.” 

Sharing the Growth

Nissan’s growth has boosted investment and job growth for its supplier base across Rutherford County. Calsonic Kansei, which produces cockpit modules, consoles, exhaust systems and thermal components for Nissan, as well as other automakers, is investing $109 million and adding 1,200 jobs at its three locations in the state, including 183 in Smyrna.

Other automotive firms, such as Topre America Corporation and Valeo, have launched operations in Smyrna to provide components to Nissan, adding to the local ecosystem of suppliers. NHK Seating of America is investing nearly $54 million in a facility for seat frames that is expected to employ up to 224 workers when all phases of production are implemented in 2015.

MAHLE Filter Systems North America Inc. makes carbon filters, intake manifolds and other components for Nissan, Honda and other automakers at its Murfreesboro facility. It relies on two suppliers in the area, Derby Fabricating Solutions in La Vergne and Ideal Tridon in Smyrna. For just-in-time delivery, Rutherford County’s highway network is critical, says product manager Jeff Clark.

“Our products are large plastic parts that typically ship 12-100 per container,” Clark says. “The close proximity to our customers allows us to ship at a lower cost rather than making products in lower-cost countries that are at a further distance.”

The company’s engineering staff is pulled from local universities, such as Middle Tennessee State University, Tennessee Tech University and the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and the technical maintenance staff is supported by the Tennessee College of Applied Technology at Murfreesboro, Clark adds.

Johnson Controls invested $10 million to double space at its plant in Murfreesboro, where it makes seats for five of the six vehicle platforms Nissan produces at Smyrna. Being centrally situated to its supplier base, as well as its customers, makes the region a prime spot for the company.

“We receive parts from Canada, Mexico and across the United States, so the fact we’re located in the central states makes it beneficial for logistics,” says Dan Magee, plant manager.

When Nissan places an order for seats, the company has four hours to assemble them and truck them to the plant. It’s possible because of the workforce.

“We run a three-shift operation, and one huge advantage I see is the workforce dedication we have here,” Magee says. 

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