DETROIT — If you drive a car with a backup camera, there is a good chance the device was made at a high-tech Michigan plant operated by Magna International, a global automotive supplier.
In many ways, the Magna Electronics plant in Holly, a village about 40 miles northwest of Detroit, is emblematic of today’s high-tech automotive manufacturing, which includes ever-increasing amounts of electronics, software and microchips.
In Holly, more than 600 employees in three plants assemble small, high-resolution cameras that help people see when they put their car in reverse. The cameras are attached to circuit boards the size of a quarter with as many as 104 components that are installed by high-tech machines operated by workers wearing static guards on their shoes, long-sleeve shirts and either hats or hairnets.
“This really is the new manufacturing. The old days of beating and banging are gone,” said Rob Devota, process technology manager at Magna Electronics. “This electrical content is growing and growing, so this is the new manufacturing.”
About 45 percent of rear-view cameras in cars and trucks in North America came from Magna, said Jeff Gary, general manager for Magna Electronics.
The plant has grown quickly in recent years and will likely continue to expand its production capacity.
Eight years ago, there were just 80 employees making early versions of today’s backup cameras at the plant. But that was back when rear view cameras to help drivers park their cars were a new option. Now, backup cameras are widely available on new vehicles.
Magna also makes front-facing cameras at the plant. Those cameras are linked with the automatic emergency braking systems that are expected to be standard equipment on many new cars by 2018. That means demand for the cameras is skyrocketing.
“The market went from a cupcake to a pie,” said Devota.
Magna primarily competes with Continental, Bosch, Sony and ZF Group for the market of automotive cameras, but the competition is growing.
“It’s an interesting market to be in because there is really no expert in this market. It is evolving so fast. What you know today … it will be outdated six months from now,” Devota said. “When we get stuck, you can’t call Joe down the street. … There is no Joe. We probably are Joe in this industry.”
This year, the company expects to produce more than 6 million backup cameras in Holly, or nearly three times the number produced in 2012. By 2018, Magna’s manufacturing campus in Holly could be making as many as 9 million cameras annually for the automotive industry.
Magna’s cameras are purchased by 15 different automakers and are shipped to 181 plants in North America, Europe, South America and Asia.
Gary said the Holly plant is profitable and is able to compete on a cost basis with manufacturers located anywhere in the world.
Entry-level assemblers earn $14 per hour and need only a high school diploma but receive extensive on the job training. They also have opportunities to become quality technicians or team leaders.
Quana Green, 28, of nearby Flint, said she worked at Wal-Mart before getting a job with Magna three years ago.
“I prefer working with the same people, coming in and knowing exactly what I am going to be doing,” Green said. “Working with the public is not for me. I like this job.”
Gary said Magna has reduced its labor costs as a percentage of sales by 80 percent by working with employees to streamline the manufacturing process.
“Our people are that much more productive and our first time quality is that much better,” Gary said. “They know what they are competing against, they know what we have to do and they do it and we are very open with them about that.”
Magna, an auto supplier with about $36 billion in annual revenue, has been building new plants in Mexico alongside new assembly plants built by automakers but also recently opened two new plants in Michigan and continues to add workers at the camera plant. In the U.S., Magna’s manufacturing workforce has increased from 18,300 in 2012 to more than 22,700.