Auto supplier opening $3M R&D lab in Troy

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Correction: In the photo below, Sapa CEO Egil Hogna, left, is joined by Tolga Egrilmezer, vice president of strategic products, in a tour of a new Sapa Group facility in Troy. The subjects were misidentified in a previous version of the story. 

Troy — A Norwegian supplier of aluminum components for vehicles such as the Ford F-150 pickup and Tesla Model S electric is expanding its operations in Metro Detroit.

Sapa Group on Tuesday officially opened a 10,000-square-foot research and development lab in Troy. The company spent more than $3 million on the facility, and sees a major opportunity to expand its automotive business in North America.

“We’ve been growing probably 5 percent on average the past five or six years,” said Charles Straface, North American president for Sapa Extrusions.

Beside light-duty automotive parts, the company produces aluminum components for an array of products — from cruise ships and semitrailers to window frames. Straface said North American operations shipped 1.4 billion pounds of aluminum extrusions in 2015.

Matthias Kapp, automotive engineering manager, said the state-of-the-art lab will almost fully be dedicated to the research and development of extruded aluminum components for the automotive industry.

“The reason this facility is here is the biggest growth market for extrusions is automotive,” he said during a tour of the facility, adding that the auto sector represents about 15 percent of the company’s business in North America. “That’s probably our highest potential growth unit.”

The facility includes a hydraulic press, scanning electron microscope and other advanced machinery and tools that will be used to research, develop and test aluminum auto parts.

Automakers continue to increase the use of aluminum in cars and pickups as a way to reduce weight while keeping — if not increasing — a part’s durability.

The opening of the R&D facility, which is expected to employ about 10 people by mid-year, comes less than two years after Sapa opened a business development office in Birmingham. The company also has a production facility in Kalamazoo.

The North American Technology Center in Birmingham offers design expertise to create cost-reducing, corrosion-resistant and durable aluminum profiles for the automotive industry.

More than a dozen automotive support engineers provide custom alloy development for major customers in the Detroit area.

Besides Ford Motor Co. and Tesla Motors Inc., Sapa’s automotive customers include General Motors Co., BMW AG, Jaguar Land Rover and others.

Kapp said Sapa supplies parts on more than 50 vehicles in the United States. Officials expect that number, and business in general to continue expanding.

“We have planned for growth,” Kapp said of the facility. “I would anticipate it will be full in the next seven years.”