By Trent Moore
The Cullman Times
Following a $100 million expansion in production capacity last year, REHAU is shaking things up once again in Cullman — but this time it’s something a little different.
The Cullman branch of REHAU has already grown into one of the auto part manufacturer’s largest locations outside of Germany, and now officials have announced a new technical center that should create more than 150 jobs and maintain the local plant’s position as a key component of the company’s global strategy.
The technical center, which will be used to develop and refine production processes, is the first ever built outside of REHAU’s native Germany. Similar to a research and development lab, the center will focus on injection molding, paint, fabrication and supply chain processes. The company plans to specifically use this new space to conduct automotive component and system design initiatives that will be implemented in Cullman and eventually at plants across the globe.
REHAU is a tier-one supplier for Mercedes-Benz, and in addition to the myriad other polymer products produced by the company, the Cullman location also manufactures bumper assemblies for Mercedes’ C-Class and M-Class vehicle lines.
REHAU Automotive chief finance officer Reiner Leifhelm told The Times the project will only strengthen Cullman’s position within the company’s global operations.
“For us, Cullman is a cornerstone of our automotive business,” he said. “We’ve been here for 20 years, and I think that type of long-term commitment makes it pretty clear. We have an excellent work force, support and cooperation from the state and local government. We’ve found everything we need in the Cullman community.”
The new, 12,000-sq. ft. technical center will be built adjacent to the company’s manufacturing facility in Cullman, Ala. The project is estimated to cost approximately $2-3 million and should be completed by Spring 2015.
Though the building itself is still being designed, officials say it will feature cutting-edge technology and large, open-air workspaces. It will also be built to showcase many of REHAU’s various products, including high-efficiency windows and doors, radiant heating and cooling systems, and furniture edgeband and tambour doors.
By locating on the same campus as REHAU’s production operation in Cullman, Leifhelm said it will allow engineers to test and implement their developments in a “live” setting on the production floor at the plant.
The center is expected to employ between 30-40 highly trained engineers, while the project will eventually spur the hiring of approximately 100 additional new jobs over the next five years.
The average engineer could earn anywhere from $45,000 to $100,000 depending on experience — which is a piece of the project officials hope will open up new opportunities to retain and attract highly-trained individuals to the area.
“This is truly an investment in future growth, and investing in research and development is investing in the future —and companies that don’t do that oftentimes won’t make it,” Cullman Mayor Max Townson said. “This is a huge step for Cullman, opening up a door we’ve never opened before.”
Leifhelm noted the Cullman operation has already begun some preliminary technology development, and the creation of a full-fledged technical center should only work to enhance those efforts.
“REHAU’s Cullman plant is already leading the charge globally in several key areas, including in its parts painting process, which involves an innovative means of simultaneous water-borne and solvent-borne coating application,” Leifhelm said. “This joint development between our Cullman plant technicians and our German technical center demonstrates the competence needed by automotive plants around the world, and is a good foundation upon which to build our new Cullman technical center.”
In addition to research and development operations, the technical center will also include a training academy for employees and students to learn the specialized skill sets needed to work for REHAU.
“We need to work together to involve the local school systems, and Wallace State, to continue to be successful in this community, as well,” Leifhelm said. “With the academy here, it will give us a place to start, so we can begin training employees and future employees.”
Looking back to when REHAU first committed to come to Cullman approximately 20 years ago, Cullman Economic Development Agency Director Peggy Smith said Thursday’s announcement shows just how far the community has come as an industrial destination.
“Our workforce and the quality of our community has developed to the point where we are capable of supporting this, and all those things have to go together, from skill technicians, to highly-specialized engineers to support a facility like this,” she said. “We are so appreciative of REHAU to make this kind of investment in Cullman, and if it proves successful here, it might encourage other industries to see that success and consider doing something like this in the future.”
Secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce Greg Canfield said the expansion is a reflection of the local commitment from the Cullman community to pursue and invest in economic development.
“Cullman continues to set the standard for economic development, and is really the envy of other communities,” he said. “This is what happens when economic development meets opportunity ... One of Gov. [Robert] Bentley’s charges has been to create more strategic opportunities for highly-trained positions, and to give an opportunity for highly-trained people to build their careers in this state.”
REHAU employs approximately 17,000 employees at more than 170 locations around the world. The Cullman location employs approximately 700 people.
‰ Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.