Silent safety role TE raises profile on Triad operations' silent safety partner role

Winston-Salem Journal |

For many U.S. and global motorists, TE Connectivity Ltd. serves as a silent performance and safety partner.

As motor-vehicle production shifts annually toward more electric- and autonomous-driving vehicles, the research and development facilities in Winston-Salem and production facilities in Greensboro are playing increasingly important roles for TE and its automobile-manufacturer customers.

TE operates in the former AMP buildings on Reidsville Road off U.S. 158 and Business 40. The campus focuses on research and development in the automotive, industrial and commercial transportation, appliances and sensors sectors, as well as some global corporate representation.

More specifically, it has more than 60 engineers and technicians dedicated to product-assurance services that include test laboratories, thermal-shock conditions, dimensional inspections, failure analyses and calibration.

Altogether, there are nearly 500 employees in Winston-Salem with around-the-clock operations weekdays.

There also are 950 employees at its Greensboro production facilities on Burgess Road and Pegg Road, and a small workforce with a sensors operation in High Point.

"The work here is a combination of engineering labs, as well as corporate and operational functions," TE spokesman Jeff Cronin said.

"A lot of local residents aren't aware of what we're doing here or they are more familiar with AMP," which Tyco Electronics purchased for $12.2 billion in 1999.

"We felt it was time to shine a light on what we're doing," Cronin said. "In many ways, the next chapter of the future of driving is being drafted in your back yard."

Saving lives

Although the Winston-Salem buildings are approaching 50 years old, they have been revamped in recent years with hundreds of millions of dollars of equipment that tests products in extreme hot and cold temperatures ranges (minus 40 degrees to 257 degrees Fahrenheit), humidity ranges, as well as for vibrations and performance.

Some of the testing is conducted in explosion-proof ovens.

For example, local engineers developed a seat-position sensor that, in case of an accident, tells the air bag how far to deploy based on where the person is seated "to make the moment as safe as possible," said Chris Handy, manager of automotive product assurance services at the Winston-Salem operations.

"The sensor can determine the energy level for deploying the air bag, whether at 25 mph in a fender bender or a full blast necessary for a 65 mph head-on collision.

"Most every vehicle on the road today, and well into the future, has a product of ours playing a key role," Handy said. "These are developments that are saving lives in the real world."

Other examples are surround-view 360-degree camera angles, cable assemblies, relays, harnesses, connectors and disconnects that manage data processing "faster in the most power-efficient way, but with less total material," said Jeremy Patterson, an engineering director at the Winston-Salem operation.

Local engineers have earned multiple patents for devices, such as those that help automobiles detect and avoid obstacles, including vehicles drifting into an adjacent lane.

It can take between six months and three years to go from research design to the product being installed in the motor vehicle. Testing can take between six to 12 months to complete.

"It's better for these parts to be beat up in testing so that when the design goes forward, it is viable and requires tweaking, and not overhauls," Handy said.

"Miniaturization of these connectors, sensors and antennas means cars will be more environmentally sustainable."

Rebounding workforce

TE's connectivity to electric-vehicle development has kept its local employment stable in recent years following the loss of thousands of local jobs beginning in the late 1990s with the sale of AMP to Tyco Electronics.

As recently as , AMP had 2,620 workers in Guilford County, 771 in Forsyth County and 533 in Davidson County.

In 2009, TE closed its plant in Wallburg, affecting about 400 jobs with most workers shifting to Guilford facilities. The plant had a peak employment of about 1,800. The Wallburg plant was acquired in 2010 by Timco Aviation Services Inc. for an aircraft-seating production facility.

In 2013, TE eliminated up to 664 jobs at its plant at 8010 Piedmont Triad Parkway in Greensboro. That employee reduction left TE with about 1,200 Triad employees.

The workforce has rebounded by about 250 employees in the past six years.

The Greensboro production facilities make parts primarily for our automotive customers, including seat sensors, air bag module housings, pin and contact plating, pin headers and plug assemblies.

"What is developed in Winston-Salem will either be manufactured in Greensboro or one of our other plants throughout North America," Cronin said.

Patterson said TE tends to focus production on meeting local market needs first.

The TE operations in the Triad are examples of advanced manufacturing that "should be a growth sector in coming decades," said Michael Walden, an economics professor at N.C. State University.

"It's a plus for any region with a footprint in the sector."

Financing for roads

Walden said electric-vehicle technology is presenting a significant socioeconomic and political challenge as it evolves.

"Moving to non-gasoline-powered vehicles does create challenges for the public financing of roads and transportation infrastructure, both of which are highly dependent on gas-tax revenues in North Carolina," Walden said.

"This will be one focus of the new NC FIRST (future investment resources for sustainable transportation) Commission, of which I am a member."

Senate Bill 446 cleared the third of three N.C. Senate committees Wednesday and is headed to the Senate floor. The bill would raise the registration fee from $130 to $230 for an electric vehicle. It would create a plug-in hybrid vehicle registration fee of $115 in addition to regular registration fees.

There also would be an annual adjusting of the registration fees for both sets of vehicles. The bill, if signed into law, would go into effect .

Hiring challenges

Patterson said TE has developed a pipeline for engineers, particularly with UNC Charlotte and N.C. State University.

However, he said it's been challenging to hire individuals with the experience and skill needed for its milling operations for parts.

"We know the need will continue to grow as the demand for electric and autonomous-driving vehicles grows," Patterson said.

TE is working with local community colleges on classroom and hands-on machinery training.

TE is not only alone in its hiring challenges.

A NCWorks Commission report released in July found about half of North Carolina's employers - corporations, small businesses, and mom-and-pop stores - are struggling to find qualified workers for open jobs.

The difficulties are even larger - at 61 percent - within the Triad and other areas defined as "medium metros."

About 60 percent of manufacturers and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)-related businesses found it more challenging to fill positions than employers as a whole.

The top two reasons employers gave for hiring difficulties were "employability" issues, such as a lack of a strong work ethic, professionalism or reliability, and a low number of applicants.

In the Triad and other medium metro areas, 67.3% of employers cited employability as a challenge, along with soft skills (57.1%), technical skills (55%), lack of qualified applicants (54.1%) and lack of preferred work experience (52.1%).

Some Triad companies have adopted variations of the European apprenticeship philosophy, which typically identifies students as young as middle school for a trade career.

Although the U.S. versions wait until students graduate from high school before enrolling them as apprentices, companies can begin to make contact when students are 10th- and 11th-graders.

Mitch Kokai, policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation, said that as well-intentioned as government-run jobs and training programs may be, "the state would be better off focusing on a sound basic education."

"Students with mastery of basic skills will be able to transition more effectively into the workforce, apprenticeship or college."

Test laboratories

A key element of the Winston-Salem operations is the test laboratories.

Jackie Everidge, with TE's Dimensional Inspection division, said the laboratories are "on target to finish 1,400 tests this year."

"The duration of the tests vary greatly, as contact testing may take 20 hours per test, while it may take all the way up to 2,000 hours for battery electric centers," Everidge said.

Employees at the local facilities have developed patents for accelerating the time it takes to charge an electric vehicle's battery, as well as expanding charging options that reduced the charging cost.

Patterson said its collaborations with most major automobile manufacturers on electric and autonomous driving vehicles are ramping up in part because driver habits are changing rapidly.

"You are seeing more demand for electric vehicles as they become more cost-effective," Patterson said.

"You are also seeing more young adults in urban areas opting not to own a gasoline-fueled vehicle, choosing to participate in ride-sharing options."

Patterson said automobile manufacturers remain cautious about mass production of electric vehicles in part because of what he called "mileage and charge- range anxiety issues."

"As more people driving electric vehicles, the equipment has to continue to improve to bear up to the demand in terms of battery use per trip and over its lifespan," Patterson said.

"When we can get to a 15-minute charge time being the standard when connected to the grid, it will boost consumer confidence.

"The more performance-driving components that can be added to make the driving fun - it's easier for an EV vehicle to go from 0 to 60 (mph) - the more popular the vehicles will become." 336-727-7376 @rcraverWSJ

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