“But the situation is changing,” he said. “Now that automakers are moving toward more aluminum, it’s a more promising environment for investment.”
In some cases, the Muscle Shoals plant was a snapshot of many old industrial plants around America today — run down and not rigorously maintained, even as customers yearn for supplier capacity.
“The previous owner would run to failure. You’d just keep going until something broke,” said Evans, speaking with Automotive News in the supplier’s sunny, renovated offices in Muscle Shoals. “We’re doing preventative maintenance here now to make sure we don’t have catastrophic failures. That’s how you grow the facility and produce more aluminum.”
Inside the plant, technicians keep watchful eyes on the numbers flashing across new monitors that report the second-by-second condition of the wide, millimeters-thin sheets that roll through production. Elsewhere, quality inspectors gently rub their gloved hands over the surface of the produced metals, looking closely for blemishes or other flaws.
Once the coils are ready to ship, they are put on trucks bound not for automotive customers, but for the Bowling Green finishing plant. There, an additional production stage hardens the metal so it is strong enough for vehicle applications.
Constellium’s U.S. strategy required one more investment. In January, the company paid $100 million to buy out its Japanese partners in Kentucky and take full ownership of the Bowling Green operation. More investment is under consideration for that operation.
Bowling Green is Constellium’s supply point for U.S. automakers. Once the coils are hardened and ready to ship, that plant sells the Alabama-made aluminum to a growing list of customers, including Toyota, BMW, Fiat Chrysler, Nissan, Tesla and Ford. Although Constellium missed out on the big F-150 conversion, it is supplying the new Ford Ranger and Explorer, said Craig Lewis, Constellium director of strategy.
Lewis says more customers are in the pipeline, but he keeps his sales list confidential.