Less than a decade ago, the Grand Rapids facility of global automotive and aerospace manufacturer Hutchinson was struggling to stay open; last week at the facility, the company cut the ribbon on its new North American Innovation Center, cementing its footprint in Grand Rapids for years to come.
Cedric Duclos, Hutchinson North America president and CEO, said when he came to Grand Rapids seven years ago, he was tasked with turning around the floundering Grand Rapids facility at 460 Fuller Ave. NE.
The facility focuses on developing, engineering and manufacturing noise/vibration/harshness systems for the automotive industry.
“When I came here, it was in very hard, difficult times because this facility was in very bad shape — losing a lot of money, and so the first mission was to turn it around to survive,” Duclos said.
“It would have been easy to just go somewhere else or de-localize our production to another country like a lot of companies have done,” he added.
Duclos said the troubles had to do with the downturn in the auto industry, increasing prices of raw materials and some internal decisions made by company leaders.
Despite the challenges, Duclos said the quality of the employees convinced him the Grand Rapids facility was worth saving.
“I thought, ‘I am not going to close down this facility,’” he said. “There are a lot of great people, a lot of great ideas, so I tried my best to save the company, and thanks to the support and the efforts of the men and women who worked here — because they never gave up — we were able to do that.”
He also noted good talent is hard to find.
“In West Michigan you have hardworking, dedicated and loyal people,” he said. “That knowledge and experience we find in our engineers and production operators, etc., you can’t just replace.”
He said after getting the facility back on track, the next focus was on reinvestment. “Because, obviously, without innovation you don’t go very far,” he said.
With the opening of Hutchinson’s North American Innovation Center at the Fuller Avenue location — officially named 616 Fab House — Duclos has accomplished far more than turning the facility around.
The 13,400-square-foot center is the company’s second innovation center — the other is located near the company’s Paris headquarters. It will serve all five of Hutchinson’s global divisions, bringing employees and customers together from around the world.
Duclos said the purpose of the center is to provide state-of-the-art communication technology and an environment that fosters innovation.
616 Fab House features an interactive product showroom, a process and robotics interactive showroom, fabrication lab and 3D printer center, interactive light boards, tele-presence center, training and conference center, boardroom, breakout and lounge seating and a reception kitchen.
The state-of-the-art technology focus is exemplified in its advanced tele-presence capabilities, which “provide a unique, immersive experience.” A three-screen video monitor in one of the rooms gives participants the sensation that the person on the screen is sitting directly across from them.
The interactive product display area shows all products made by Hutchinson’s North American operations in their environmental use. For example, there are replicas of an airplane fuselage, a full-size automobile and military tank treads with actual Hutchinson parts inserted.
The opening of the innovation center last week couldn’t have been better timed.
In his State of the State address the night before, Gov. Rick Snyder talked about the importance to the state’s comeback of Michigan remaining the leader in the automotive industry. He noted innovation as a key strategy to achieving that goal and called cars of the future “computers on wheels.”
“I completely agree with that statement, especially in the age of autonomous vehicles,” Duclos said. “For us, it’s really about investing in smart technologies.”
Duclos said until recently a vehicle has been the sum of its mechanical parts, but now there is an opportunity to embed electronics in those parts, resulting in smart products that can further innovation and improve vehicles.
“You have the opportunity to focus your research and development in the right direction to make those originally mechanical products smart products by embedding electronics in there,” he said. “You can do very interesting things, like data harvesting.”
He noted smart products can lead to greater energy efficiency through energy harvesting, as well as provide economic and safety benefits.
“We want to embed our product with intelligence — smart capabilities — so we feed data, harvest energy, provide critical maintenance information so you can optimize the time when you change or replace a part — not too early, which is a waste, or not to late, which can have catastrophic consequences,” he said.
Bringing the company’s North American Innovation Center to Grand Rapids is a “coup” for the city, according to Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of The Right Place, the region’s business and economic development agency.
Klohs has been working with Hutchinson for most of its 30-year history in Grand Rapids, which was the company’s fist location in the state. Today, it has three additional Michigan locations.
Klohs noted the company has 100 plants across the globe.
“It’s a $4 billion business with 34,000 employees,” she said. “Obviously, they’ve had opportunities elsewhere, so to land their innovation center for North America for auto and aerospace is a major coup for West Michigan and Grand Rapids.”
She said the center benefits the entire region.
“It will bring their customers here — many are here, today — and key global businesses,” she said. “As the governor said last night, it’s all about innovation in key industry sectors, and if we don’t, then we lose our place in line. This adds to the depth of our innovation capacity in West Michigan.”