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Lear ready for electric vehicles

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Lear ready for electric vehicles

Auto supplier successfully predicted growth, invested in new power lab in 2008

Alisa Priddle / The Detroit News

Southfield -- Lear Corp. is embracing electric vehicles, and expects that making parts for this growing market will be lucrative -- quickly.

The Southfield-based supplier expects sales of components and systems for hybrids and electric vehicles to grow to approximately 7 percent of its electric systems business by 2012 -- from zero percent in 2009, said Raymond Scott, president of Lear's Global Electrical and Electronic Systems.

The sales target is $250 million in this new area. Lear's total global sales last year were about $2.3 billion.

Lear anticipated the growth of electric vehicles, so it invested in a new power lab at its Global Center for Excellence in Southfield in September 2008. But Scott said Tuesday he's shocked by the speed at which the technology is being embraced.

"I've never seen anything like this," he said.

Lear sees itself as unique, with a gamut of parts for electric cars.

People are already familiar with vehicles such as the Chevrolet Volt and battery suppliers. A company like Lear provides unsung but crucial parts: charging stations, connecting systems, converters between AC and DC currents and energy management units that take the 400 volts in the battery to the 60 volts needed to operate the radio, said Glenn Denomme, an engineering chief.

An array of terminals, connectors and distinct wiring are needed to manage the power grid within an electric vehicle, Denomme said, as well as safety precautions for handling high voltage.

Two-hundred Lear employees are working on these products globally, including 125 in Southfield. When Lear laid off workers during restructuring, "we kept this area very sacred," Scott said. "That was a conscious decision."

The supplier has since started hiring. About 25 people have been added this year, and engineers are needed in specialized areas such as magnetics, said Jeneanne Hanley, global vice president of business and development and strategy.

Everything being developed in Lear's new center is either in production or will be soon, Denomme said.

Among them: a first-generation home charging station for the Volt, and a portable unit to charge the car away from home -- both ready this fall. Work also is under way on a charging station for the Renault Kangoo electric vehicle, due early next year. Lear already is working on the third-generation charging station for Daimler AG to use in an electric Smart car in 2012.

Lear's expansion is in line with the findings of a study released Tuesday by AlixPartners LLP of Southfield, which found the automotive supply chain has bounced back quickly from last year's crisis and companies are enjoying a surprising level of profitability and shifting into growth mode, said partner John Hoffecker.

Hoffecker said companies must be careful not to waste their restructuring efforts and slip back into bad practices.

"Our chairman reminds us every day we can't go backwards," Scott said. "We've spent a lot of time and money and effort restructuring.

"We won't put ourselves through that again."

From The Detroit News: http://www.detnews.com/article/20100616/AUTO01/6160343/1148/auto01/Lear-ready-for-electric-vehicles#ixzz0r1GcXSwp

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