Dayton plant automates — and hires

MAHLE Behr, which makes heating, ventilation and air-conditioning parts for automotive customers, has immediate openings for 50 hourly workers and about five engineers and managers, said Rob Baker, manager of the plant at 1600 Webster Street.

There will be additional openings this summer, Baker said — about 10 openings each month from July through September, and perhaps more after that.

Those openings are available even as the company has sunk $3.5 million in robotics in the last two years and plans to invest another $2 million per year in robotics in the next five years. The plant also plans to invest $6.5 million in injection molding equipment.

All of that equipment will need to be fitted, maintained and operated — and that means jobs, Baker said.

Baker pointed to a new array of “screw-bots,” robots that tighten screws. The plant fastens some 100 million screws a year, he said. With a job like that, humans face fatigue, boredom and repetition injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome.

“I told my team, ‘If we can’t automate something we do 100 million times, we might as well just shut the doors,” Baker said.

Instead of fastening thousands of screws, workers can focus on other jobs. Baker’s message to workers: You need not fear robotics.

“If you want a job, you have one,” he said.

The plant has about 960 active workers. Turnover and automation allow the plant to direct workers to new tasks, even as some robots take over some tasks.

The investments and hiring are driven by the success of Behr’s customers. The plant serves General Motors, Ford and Chrysler Group, and it is trying to draw Honda as a customer. Among the models on which Behr HVAC modules, radiator tanks and other parts are found: Chrysler minivans and the Ford F-150 pickup truck, the best-selling vehicle in the United States.

Erik Nieves, technology director for Miamisburg robotics manufacturer Yaskawa Motoman, said it’s not a matter of “robots versus jobs.” It’s a more a matter of “productivity versus not.”

Robots replace tasks, not just jobs, he said.

“Our perspective, given our experience: It is true that when you put a robot in, you are replacing some amount of labor,” Nieves said. “Otherwise you can’t justify it.”

But the reason manufacturers need automation is because they need production, he said. That demand for production equals jobs.

“They have demand,” Nieves said. “If they didn’t have demand, they wouldn’t be looking to automate.”

Anyone interested in applying for a job at Behr should go to the plant’s main lobby in person from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on business days. The company needs applicants willing to take a drug screening, said Ellyn Chaney, the plant’s human resources manager. Convicted felons and those who have used drugs in the past six months need not apply, Chaney and Baker said.

Starting wages range from $11.65 for assembly workers to nearly $20 an hour for those in skilled trades.

The Behr plant covers 1.1 million square feet in two main facilities.

German firm MAHLE GmbH took a majority ownership stake last year in the Behr Group, which owns the local plant. The plant, once owned by Chrysler, has operated since the 1930s.

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