By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
“This plant is very fortunate to have ORNL,” Ed Steinebach, General Manager of Eagle Bend Manufacturing, Inc., said in reference to the Department of Energy’s largest science and energy laboratory.
The 35-year manufacturing executive moved from Michigan to East Tennessee about two and one-half years ago to lead the 750-employee plant in Clinton that is part of the Magna International family. The global giant was ranked as the world’s third largest automotive supplier in the latest Automotive News listing.
“I had never worked with a national laboratory,” Steinebach says. He had also never lived in East Tennessee. Today, Steinebach is one of ORNL’s strongest advocates, thanks to the lab’s help in keeping the Eagle Bend plant competitive in the marketplace, and he’s an ambassador for the region.
How a “new guy in town” connected quickly with the region’s technology giant underscores the importance of networks, outreach and responsiveness. More important, however, is how those “connections” and the collaboration that followed have positively impacted the region’s economy.
In Steinebach’s case, he became involved in the Regional Advanced Manufacturing partnership (RAMP) run by Tech 2020 soon after arriving in Clinton.
“I was invited to a meeting where I hooked-up with (ORNL’s) Jeff Cornett and Buzz Patrick from Tech 2020,” he explained. Through RAMP (Patrick) and Cornett, Steinebach got connected with the MDF and, as they say, the rest is history.
For the Eagle Bend executive and his customers, it was a great connection.
“This industry is a little nuts,” Steinebach says, adding that the life of automotive suppliers is “feast or famine.” He is referring to the product iteration cycles that occur every four to five years as vehicle models are updated or totally changed.
“It’s about who has the best technology at the time,” he explains. If you don’t win the new business, you have to wait for the next opportunity that could be years away.
That’s where ORNL and the team at its Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) played a key role in helping Eagle Bend win a major contract with Honda. As a result, “Honda will become our biggest customer in the second quarter of 2015,” Steinebach says.
One of the key issues driving innovation in the automotive sector today is the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy requirement, commonly referred to as the CAFÉ standard. The rule requires average fuel efficiency of new cars and trucks to be 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.
That translates into reducing vehicle weight through adoption of materials other than steel, such as the widespread use of aluminum in the new Ford F-150 pick-up, and new processes that do not compromise vehicle safety.
Steinebach explains that Eagle Bend is an industry leader in the use of hot stamping methods to form complex, high-strength parts previously manufactured through cold forming. The “hot” process helps reduce the weight while also adding strength to a critical automotive part like a B Pillar, for example.
“The industry standard (in hot stamping) is you get a formed part, but not one that is trimmed,” Steinebach said. Adding a second step to trim the part increases the production costs, but that step has been removed thanks to a patent-pending solution Eagle Bend and ORNL researchers developed.
Steinebach is naturally reluctant to share specifics of the solution for competitive reasons, but does acknowledge in an understated way, “I have an advantage over the competition when you do all of the value add.”
As far as the work at the MDF role, Steinebach candidly says, “We were pushing ORNL hard. We had timeliness to meet. They did some remarkable things in a short period of time.”
And, as the proverbial icing on the cake, he notes that ORNL’s Zhili Feng, Group Leader for Materials Processing and Joining, went with the Eagle Bend team to Japan to sell the technology approach to Honda.
There’s more work underway with ORNL and Steinebach is even exploring opportunities with the Y-12 National Security Complex.
NEXT: How a seasoned industry executive views the region – its challenges and opportunities.