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Auto and Steel Manufacturing Alive and Well in the Lehigh Valley

By Don Cunningham on February 16, 2015

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in Lehigh Valley Business on Feb. 16, 2015.

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

Mark Twain once wrote that the report of his death had been greatly exaggerated.

If Mack Trucks in Macungie and Lehigh Heavy Forge in Bethlehem were so inclined, they could make the same claim.

Auto and steel manufacturing in the Lehigh Valley are often referred to in the past tense. The truth is that they are both alive and well in the present tense.

Mack Trucks employs more than 1,800 people and is eyeing an expansion. Lehigh Heavy Forge, which operates on the former Bethlehem Steel site – so often referred to as a place where steelmaking once took place – has 165 employees in a large 871,000-square-foot plant just east of the Minsi Trail Bridge. They both have unionized workforces that have been growing in recent years.

Lehigh Heavy Forge is a subsidiary of WHEMCO Inc. Previously, it had been BethForge, which was one of Bethlehem Steel Corp.’s businesses. It was sold in 1997 just prior to Bethlehem Steel’s final shutdown in March 1998.

It is referred to by the company as “the sole remaining super-heavy forging plant in North America.”

Lehigh Heavy Forge serves the commercial nuclear, power generation, national defense, offshore oil and gas, and mining industries, among many others. Just as the structural steel that rolled out of Bethlehem became part of the skyscrapers and bridges of America’s great cities, forgings made in Bethlehem still find their way into critical parts of the American economy.

The company quietly, with no fanfare, on land where the epitaph of steelmaking is regularly spoken again and again, produces the largest open-die forgings in the Western Hemisphere with its 10,000-ton press. And, it does it with real live steelworkers.

Across the river in Macungie, the Mack bulldog is rolling off the assembly line at a quicker pace than in recent history.

With a workforce of more than 1,800 and one million square feet of space, the Macungie plant produced more than 24,000 trucks in 2014. That is up from what was about 5,000 trucks in the mid-1980s. In 2009, about 800 people worked for Mack in the Lehigh Valley.

Volvo Group North America owns the Mack brand and is looking to expand the facility in the Lehigh Valley to meet increasing demand. A $26 million expansion is planned for completion in 2016.

About 116 trucks per day are produced here. Roger W. Johnston, vice president and general manager of the Volvo Group Trucks Operations who oversees the area facility, would like to see that number increase. But the Lehigh Valley is in competition with other states and the world.

While all Mack-brand trucks are produced in Macungie, Volvo produces 180,000 trucks per year and employs 34,000 people worldwide. Production facilities in Brazil are a benchmark for lean manufacturing, Johnston said.

Heavy manufacturing such as that of Mack benefit the Lehigh Valley in many ways. A few years ago, Westport Axle relocated its heavy axle manufacturing to Lehigh County to be close to Mack, its largest customer. Contrary to some conventional wisdom, the Lehigh Valley remains a home for heavy manufacturing, including steel and autos.

Both sectors are growing, but job growth here will continue to grow only as we keep our workforce and assets competitive with the rest of the world.

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