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German Manufacturer Celebrates 30 Years of Growth, Innovation
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LuK at 30 People, products propel progress

LuK USA turned 30 this year, and despite a lagging U.S. automotive market the company continues to expand its products, services and jobs.

The company broke ground in May 1977 on a facility off of Old Airport Road where six employees assembled clutches for the U.S. automotive industry. The first clutches for the Plymouth Horizon and Dodge Omni shipped in October 1977.

Today, LuK employs about 1,000 workers, and the focus in Wooster has shifted from clutches to torque converters.

When Herbert Wolf, vice president of operations, was assigned by LuK Buehl to Wooster in 1980, it was supposed to be for two years. Now in his 27th year in Wooster, Wolf said the company began first as an assembly plant.

Parts manufactured in Germany were shipped here and assembled. LuK later started manufacturing its own components.

Now, it has evolved into not only building full torque converters, but its engineers conduct research and development to come up with better products to meet the needs of its customers, which include Ford, GM, Toyota, Honda and Nissan.

Technology and innovation have been factors in 30 years of consistent growth, and it has happened because of committed workers who have embraced the LuK culture, said Andreas Schick, president of LuK USA.

Chris Schmid, an engineer who came to LuK USA in 1982 and served as president from 1988-99, said he believes the company has continued to grow because of its focus on technology and product development.

"Developing technology was always in the forefront," Schmid said. "This is how LuK got a foothold in U.S. market. They brought in better technology and fought off all of the competition."

What sets LuK apart from its competitors is the advanced engineering group working out of Wooster, Schick said. The company employs about 160 engineers in its research and development division.

What that means is LuK's staff can move from an initial concept or idea to the delivery of a final product virtually under one roof in a fast and efficient manner.

The engineers, sales representatives, production workers and support staff work together to bring innovation into practice, said Ashi Uppal, executive vice president.

"LuK is constantly asking what else can we do, where can we excel, where can we help the customer?" Schmid said.

"LuK has constantly evolved in marketplace by adapting new technology, not only for their own operations but as solutions to their customers they are selling products to," Rod Crider, president of Wayne Economic Development Council, said. "Their research is identifying directions their customers need to go in before their customers even know about it."

As Uppal explained, automotive manufacturers tell LuK how much space is available for the part, and LuK designs it.

"We provide tailored solutions for our customers' needs," said Marc McGrath, vice president of product development. The LuK USA team developed the first automatic transmission damper, the first torque converter and the first self-adjusting clutch.

The innovation is something in which Schick and the rest of the team are proud, which can be seen in the number of patents developed here.

The country's "Big Three" automakers are not really the big three anymore, Uppal said. In 2007 combined, GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler have less than 50 percent of the market. Despite the decline among U.S. automakers, LuK has been able to continue its steady and consistent growth by working with the "new domestics," foreign automakers who have built manufacturing plants in this country, like Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai and Kia.

While LuK products are not in these companies' vehicles as they are in the Big Three, Uppal said LuK has to propagate its technologies into their products.

There also has been a shift in how vehicles are manufactured. At one time, the companies made about 80 percent of the components in their vehicles. Uppal estimated that percentage has fallen to about 30 percent.

The change has meant opportunity for LuK and its workers.

LuK will manufacture about 1 million torque converters this year, and Schick said the number will rise to 3 million over a three-year period.

Also promising are new products and projects in the pipeline that will increase fuel efficiency, something on the top of everyone's minds today, McGrath said. LuK is working on a multi-function torque converter for an Asian customer, and the prototype will be out this year.

With increased production will come a need for more workers. To make sure the company has the work force it needs, the company started LuK Academy and has an apprenticeship and co-op program. (See related story.)

City, county and business leaders approach economic development from the perspective of identifying small, technological companies that show the potential for growth. Many have often said Wayne County needs to find the next Rubbermaid, a Wooster-born business that became the country's most-admired manufacturer.

"Maybe we need to be looking for the next LuK," Crider said. "It started with six employees, and look where it is today."

Business and Wayne County government reporter Bobby Warren can be reached at (330) 287-1638 or e-mail bwarren@the-daily-record.com.

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