Upgrading Hagerstown plant

Volvo invests $150 million in Mack factory expansion

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November 10, 2005|By DAN SHOPE

One of the obvious changes in Hagerstown these days is a factory water tower that can be seen from nearby Interstate 81.

After 44 years, it no longer has a "Mack Powertrain" sign on the side. The new paint says, "Volvo Powertrain."

The name reflects changes at the plant, which has made Mack Trucks engines and transmissions since 1961. Now, the plant is also producing engines for sister company Volvo. They are the first Volvo truck engines ever made in the United States.

AB Volvo of Sweden, parent of Mack of Allentown, Pa., is spending $150 million through 2008 to renovate the enormous plant.

Last week, Volvo gave reporters a tour of the Maryland factory to show the progress being made.

"There are many employees here with long amounts of service here," said Sten-Ake Aronsson of Sweden, senior vice president of Volvo Powertrain North America. "I know at least one who started here in 1961. And they span generations."

Aronsson showed the company's progress in the past 12 months and where it will be after the four-year modernization is complete.

The investment in technology was apparent.

"Today, each engine has a computer in it that has four times the brain capacity of the Apollo spaceship used to go to the moon," Aronsson said.

He led the tour through the active Volvo engine assembly line, then toward the Mack section, which features high-tech machines.

The striking yellow machinery made it look like an IKEA store, with everything fitting perfectly. Aronsson said the modern assembly tools aren't just from Swedish systems.

"We take the best out of every plant," he said.

He showed off a pair of electronic arms that can assemble engine parts. Another machine lifted and rotated an engine so that workers could have access to a particular spot.

To make work easier on their feet, the floor of an assembly line is wood rather than concrete.

"It's ergonomics," Aronsson said. "It reduces stress during a worker's shift."

Volvo Powertrain's plant upgrade includes a $35 million, 102,000-square-foot engine testing laboratory. The four-story building is scheduled to open in the middle of 2006 with eight engine-testing rooms.

"Volvo bought the facility so the company could adapt it for Volvo products," said Jim Winsor, executive editor of Heavy Duty Trucking Magazine. "Now it's developing new Mack and Volvo engines to pass federal emissions standards for 2007."

Aronsson said Volvo's goal is to be the best in the world in customer satisfaction.

"Volvo is not paying my salary. The customers are paying my salary," he said. "Volvo is just handing over the paychecks."

The company has added about 700 employees in Hagerstown since 2002 and has a total of about 1,700, working two shifts. Every day, 265 engines are made, 160 Macks and 105 Volvos.

Volvo engines go into highway trucks. Macks are also used on the highway and for construction and dump trucks.

Volvo projects making 50,000 engines and 15,500 transmissions this year. In 2003, it made 26,324 engines and 7,351 transmissions. Most Mack customers choose Mack engines, and the company gives them a choice in transmissions.

The Maryland plant expects to produce three new engine models in 2007, when tighter emission standards go into effect.

Aronsson said the emission of fine particles must be cut to one-tenth of the current level and the level of nitrogen oxide must be cut by half.

The added cost for each truck is expected to be at least $5,000, said Winsor of Heavy Duty Trucking. That could lead some to buy their vehicles before 2007.

"Trucks out there now are the cheapest they'll ever be," he said.

Dan Shope writes for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa.

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