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Can Detroit’s new Flex-N-Gate plant be replicated?

3 min read

Workers gather Monday for the official opening of the new Flex-N-Gate plant in Detroit. Photo credit: CRAIN’S DETROIT BUSINESS

DETROIT — Flex-N-Gate’s glimmering new $160 million auto parts plant began pumping out dozens of parts for the new Ford Ranger this month, about 18 months after the company broke ground on a once-barren plot of land on the city’s east side.

The company’s need to build a new metal-stamping and injection-molding plant to supply Ford was a rushed request in the spring of 2016 when billionaire owner Shahid Khan came to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan with a 30-day window to decide whether to build in Detroit or another greenfield in the suburbs.

“Do you think you could put a deal together in 30 days?” Duggan recalls Khan asking. “I said, ‘Shahid, that’s 10 more days than we need.'”

That the mammoth 480,000-square-foot manufacturing plant could come together from concept to completion and include a community benefits agreement to keep heavy truck traffic out of the surrounding residential neighborhoods is a testament to a new approach to doing business in Detroit.

“I think it’s a new couple of years for Detroit with a very ‘lets get it done’ attitude — we want the jobs here, we want to create something here, go back to our roots here,” said Khan, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars. “It’s the mayor and the governor really driving.”

The consensus in Detroit is the city’s comeback is fragile and won’t last if deserted neighborhoods aren’t brought back to life with employment opportunities and residents.

“There’s more ways we can help more neighborhoods, there’s more things we can do, but it’s a wonderful start,” Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said before Monday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony.

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The Flex-N-Gate plant is employing 240 workers — half of whom are Detroiters.

The new hires include Jose King, who is making 30 percent more packing finished doors for the Ford Ranger than he was checking carts at a Walmart earlier this year.

“It’s a good opportunity,” King said. “Better pay for sure. … I love what I’m doing.”

It was unclear on Monday if the UAW is trying to unionize the operation. A UAW spokesman had no immediate comment when asked about the plant by Automotive News.

Flex-N-Gate plans to hire upward of 400 employees as it ramps up production, which is heavily reliant upon automated robots and towering Schuler stamping machines.

Much of that increased production will ultimately depend on demand from Ford — and sales of the new midsize Ranger truck, which is being assembled at the retooled Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne.

But there are hints of new opportunities on the horizon.

“We have some other things, really in the works right now … stay tuned,” Khan told reporters.

Flex-N-Gate built the plant on a 30-acre plot that was once a residential neighborhood bounded by St. Cyril and Georgia streets, in an area that has been slowly converted into an industrial park over the past 20 years.

The company has space to add 270,000 square feet to the building, said Bill Beistline, executive vice president of manufacturing and global procurement for Flex-N-Gate.

“Every customer has been here, and they love it,” Beistline said. “There’s interest from FCA and GM.”

The plant is producing “a couple hundred” parts for the Ford Ranger, including doors, floors and trim parts, Beistline said.

The new plant is across St. Cyril Street from the former Crockett Technical High School, which sits boarded up next to the abandoned Lodge Playground — a 16-acre tract of land that seems prime for industrial redevelopment.

“There may be another Tier One supplier like this locating in the area soon,” Detroit City Councilman Scott Benson said, declining to say what company and where.

Duggan also made a cryptic forecast.

“There’s going to be a lot more of this coming,” the mayor said.

In the auto parts industry, the key to any manufacturing investment in the U.S. instead of Mexico is having the technology — this plant has a lot of robots — and a skilled workforce that can operate those high-tech machines, Khan said.

“That’s what it’s going to take to overcome the wage issue,” Khan said. “And we can do it. We’re doing it right here.”

What do you think?