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Japanese Forgers' New Kentucky Homes

Two metal producers are expanding their forging operations in the Bluegrass State, to serve domestic and transplant automotive manufacturers.

In May auto giant Toyota Motor Manufacturing celebrated the 20th anniversary of its first wholly owned U.S. facility: Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky (TMMK) in Georgetown, KY. The success of TMMK led Toyota, 10 years later, to build two more production centers in the U.S., in Princeton, IN, and Buffalo, WV, and eventually to a North American manufacturing base that includes 12 plants — with two more under construction in Texas and Ontario. In addition, Toyota is adding a Camry assembly line at the Subaru of Indiana Automotive plant in Lafayette, IN. “The success of TMMK team members and suppliers certainly paved the way for expansion throughout North America over the last 20 years,” stated Seiichi Sudo, president of Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America. Today, Toyota produces 10 different models in North America, including the Camry, Corolla, Sienna, Solara, Tacoma, and Tundra, as well as the Lexus RX350. By 2008, Toyota will have the capacity to build about 2 million cars and trucks annually, 1.44 million engines, and 600,000 automatic transmissions in North America.

Two forgers announce expansions
With a leading manufacturer growing like this, it was not surprising that two forging producers owned by Japanese companies would announce expansion programs. Recently, Sumitomo Metals and Kobe Steel each have announced expansion programs for their current forging operations in Kentucky, to serve automotive manufacturers in general and Toyota in particular.

The Sumitomo expansion is underway at its subsidiary, International Crankshaft Inc. (ICI), in Georgetown, with the goal of boosting steel crankshaft output by 1.25 million units per year.

The Kobe Steel expansion is at Kobe Aluminum Automotive Products (KAAP) in Bowling Green, where the company will triple production of forged aluminum control arms to well over 1 million pieces per year.

Both plants are well-situated in the so-called “auto corridor,” along Interstates 65 and 75, the north-south routes stretching from Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana to Alabama and Georgia, where a vast number of automakers and their various suppliers have operations. The ICC plant in Georgetown is close to I-75, while KAAP in Bowling Green is further west, closer to I-65.

Within 500 miles of these locations, there were (as of 2002) 4,829 motor vehicle-related manufacturers, including 69 auto assembly plants, accounting for 62% of the motor vehicle-related manufacturers in the United States (County Business Patterns 2001-2002, U.S. Census Bureau, December 2004).

Boosting forged crankshaft production
ICI was founded in 1990 by Sumitomo Metals (80% ownership) and Sumitomo Corp. (20%), and started operations in 1992. Currently it is running its two forging press lines (one rated at 6,000 tons; the other at 7,000 tons) at full capacity “in response to burgeoning North American demand for forged crankshafts.” It is producing approximately 1.4 million crankshafts per year with 140 employees.

“As the forged crankshaft market continues to expand,” Sumitomo Metals’ recent announcement states, “local customers have requested ICI to increase production. Greater production capacity is needed to meet this growing demand in the North American market, and so the decision has been made to install the third forging press line.”

ICI was established specifically for the manufacture and sale of forged crankshafts in the United States. The U.S. operation is in addition to crankshaft forging operations in Japan and China.

In Japan, Sumitomo Metals has been forging crankshafts for passenger cars, trucks, construction machines, and other machinery for many years at the Osaka Steel Works in Osaka City. The operation belongs to the company’s Railway, Automotive & Machinery Parts Co. subsidiary. Annual capacity is approximately 4 million crankshafts.

In China, Sumitomo Metals’ joint-venture company, Huizhou Sumikin Forging Co. Ltd. (HSFC), also concentrates on producing crankshafts, chiefly for passenger cars.

HSFC was founded in July 2003 and began operations in November 2004. It is in the Xiangshui River Industrial Park, in Daya Bay in Huizhou province. Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Automotive (TKA) later joined the venture. Ownership is split as follows: Sumitomo Metals 51%, Sumitomo Corp. 15%, and TKA 34%.

HSFC is investing more than $26.25 million in a second forging line, which features a 5,000-ton press. It is scheduled for startup in January 2008, and will boost capacity by 1 million crankshafts to approximately 1.8 million per year.

At ICI in Kentucky, the third press is expected to cost more than $39 million, a cost that involvs installing a forging press rated at 6,000 tons and associated equipment. It is projected to be ready for startup in January 2009.

ICI expects to achieve a production capacity of approximately 1.25 million crankshafts per year with the expansion, for an eventual total annual capacity of 2.65 million crankshafts.

Forged aluminum control arms
Kobe Aluminum Automotive Products (KAAP) was formed as a joint venture in July 2003 by Kobe Steel Ltd., Mitsui & Co., Ltd., and Toyota Tsusho Corp. specifically to manufacture and market aluminum forgings for automobile suspension systems in the United States. Kobe Steel holds a 60% share in the joint venture, Mitsui 25%, and Toyota Tsusho 15%.

As its name indicates, Kobe Steel is primarily an integrated steelmaker, but it also is one of Japan’s top manufacturers of aluminum and copper products, having supplied the aircraft and automotive industries in Japan with aluminum products since 1937.

Mitsui is a global trading company involved in a variety of industries. Toyota Tsusho Corp. was founded in 1948 as a trading and supply-chain specialist for the Toyota Group.

The partners announced that Kobe Steel would be responsible for manufacturing, while Mitsui and Toyota Tsusho would oversee marketing. That Kobe would handle manufacturing was natural, as it had been producing aluminum forgings in Japan for years. In fact, Kobe Steel claims that it is Japan’s top producer of aluminum-alloy suspension arms, with an estimated 90% share of the domestic market.

Based on what it was hearing from its Japanese customers, Kobe Steel concluded that a production base in North America would be essential to meet the increasing need for forged aluminum parts — and so it formed the KAAP joint venture.

The partners then selected Bowling Green as the site for KAAP. They announced that production would begin in June 2005 and that KAAP would sell its products to both American and Japanese automakers.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held in Bowling Green in October 2004, and plant construction began soon thereafter. The original plans called for KAAP to have a manufacturing facility and an office building totaling 108,000 ft2 on 32.6 acres of land. The plant was to consist of a melting and holding furnace, a continuous casting machine, a 6,300-ton mechanical forging press, a 300-ton mechanical trim press, and a continuous heat treatment furnace. The plant would employ 78 people. Total investment was anticipated to reach $32.7 million.

KAAP started making forgings as scheduled in June 2005 on the 6,300-ton press. The first order of business was to produce forgings so they could be qualified with customers.

Once that was achieved, commercial production began and output began to grow. To meet increasing demand, KAAP installed a second 6,300-ton press, starting it up in April of this year.

Currently, KAAP’s manufacturing facility covers 131,000 ft2. Additional equipment installed and operating in the facility includes a second 300-ton trim press and an automatic penetrant inspection line.

Even though it had been producing forgings on a commercial basis for many months, the company held the official opening ceremony on June 2. Commenting on the occasion, KAAP president Takumi Fujii said, “We’re not just celebrating the opening of our plant. We’re also marking the first year of a successful business. And this is just the beginning.”

In fact, Kobe used the event to announce that it was installing a third forging line that it expects will boost production totals significantly.

In 2005, KAAP produced 370,000 aluminum forgings. Officials state that, owing to strong demand, they are forecasting production in 2006 to grow to 1.3 million pieces.

“More cars are using aluminum-alloy suspension arms owing to the lighter weight of the material, which helps improve mileage and performance,” Fujii explained.

Officials at KAAP state the operation is benefiting from two other trends, as well. Carmakers are interested in using lighter weight components to offset the tendency of safety devices and options to add weight to cars. Finally, Japanese carmakers are increasing their procurement of parts in the United States.

KAAP is currently installing the new press and related equipment, and expects it to be ready for startup in December. When it goes into operation, KAAP’s production capacity will triple over its starting capability. Total investment costs, including the plant expansions, are anticipated to reach $65 million.

The suspension forgings that KAAP manufactures are upper arms and lower arms. They are made of KS651-T6, KAAP’s own high-strength aluminum alloy, and 6061-T6 aluminum alloy. The arms range in weight from 5.7 to 12.6 lb.

Committed to excellence in quality and efficiency, KAAP has already obtained ISO 9001 certification. Its quality-assurance system documents every step of the manufacturing process, from billet production and press forging to final treatment and inspection.

Reducing Unsprung Weight Is Key to Forged Aluminum Control Arm Interest
An important concept in automotive design is that of “unsprung weight.” This is weight that is not supported by the suspension of the car, and usually includes the weight of the wheels and tires as well as a percentage of the weight of the suspension itself, including control arms, anti-roll bars, shocks, and struts.

Reducing unsprung weight is a key to improving handling. The lower the unsprung weight, the less work the shocks and springs have to do to keep the tires in contact with the road over bumpy surfaces.

In an effort to reduce unsprung weight of a car, the designer, after specifying cast or forged aluminum wheels, will address control arms and related components.

A control arm is a suspension link that connects a knuckle or wheel flange to the frame. One end of a control arm attaches to the knuckle or wheel flange, generally with either a ball joint or bushing. The opposite end of the arm attaches to a frame member, usually pivoting on a bushing.

Forged aluminum control arms, trailing arms, and links were introduced with the intention of reducing unsprung weight and improving suspension performance. The use of forged aluminum for these components began in sports and performance cars, and is spreading to other vehicles. The result is a growing market for forged aluminum control arms.

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