Continental celebrated its past Wednesday, while looking toward the future in automotive manufacturing.
The international technology company celebrated its 40th year of manufacturing automotive parts in Culpeper, while giving visitors to the facility a chance to experience the wave of the future – riding in an automated car.
Brandon Lane, Culpeper Plant Manager, talked about the advancements the plant has seen since its inception as the Alfred Teves Facility in 1977. The plant was originally built by Westinghouse off of Lover’s Lane in Culpeper in the early 1970s but was never utilized. That’s when Teves purchased the 200,000-square-foot location and began manufacturing front disk brake calipers and vacuum boosters for the Ford Fairmount and Mercury Zephyr. In 1998, Continental purchased the facility and has been advancing with the technology ever since.
“The Culpeper facility is truly an example of our commitment to local manufacturing and our workforce in North America,” Lane said. “This facility has always produced benchmark products, and we are proud of how the workforce and products have advanced through the years.”
Employing 230 workers, the plant was the recipient of a $49 million investment in 2015, receiving it to build a new air suspension pump and a new valve block that Lane said is the latest generation in braking technology. That investment didn’t expand the footprint of the facility, but allowed Continental to grow by 25 new full-time employees.
“We received quite a bit of support from the Commonwealth of Virginia and quite a bit of support from the county of Culpeper,” Lane said. “It’s very much appreciated. We focus on continued investment on the facility to keep the manufacturing process current.”
Continental’s focus on education has led them to work with Culpeper County Public Schools and Career Partners Inc. during E-Squared and has also led to a greater partnership with Germanna Community College.
Due to the advancement of technology within the product itself, employees have to stay up to date with current systems. They do that by enrolling at Germanna and several have completed apprenticeships.
“We’ve been very transparent with our employees about the level of technology that is on its way to Continental,” Lane said. “So we’re able to present the new technology that we will be using in the manufacturing process to the employees, so we need employees who are developing along with the manufacturing technology. So yes, people do get excited to work on these types of things. They’re willing to invest the time and the education to further their education with Continental.”
Those technological advancements has led to more sensors on the cars, and the Culpeper facility is the starting point for being able to react to what those sensors indicate. Culpeper produces the machine valve lock that is the beginning point for the electronic stability unit. That unit is able to brake the car or adjust the path of the car, depending on what the sensors see, Lane said.
“We talk a lot with our employees about the significance of the product that they make,” Lane said. “What we talk about here in the facility is how important our work is on a day-to-day basis because we are manufacturing a safety product. The product we manufacture every day helps save people’s’ lives every year.”
Visitors had a chance to see the future of travel outside the facility, as Continental engineer Noah Gedrimas took them on a quick trip down U.S. 29 in an automated vehicle. The prototype on a Chrysler body is designed for automated highway use, allowing the driver to take his hands off the wheel, checking email or simply relaxing. The car uses five cameras and multiple sensors to keep track of its surroundings. The car is even able to switch lanes and can sense where other vehicles are.
“It’s been my dream to work with automated vehicles,” Gedrimas said, as he gestured with his hands, pointing out the many cameras in the car. “I have a lot of respect for what we do.”
As for driving without his hands, he said it’s amazing.
“It allows you to focus on the scenery,” he said.
During the anniversary celebration, Continental honored six employees that have worked at the plant for the entire 40 years. Paul Andrick, Ruth Campbell, Ursel Cloud, Judy Ruffner, Byrd Partlow and Patricia Lee received gifts for their years of service. Another 50 employees have worked at the plant for 25 years.
It was only fitting that Continental honored their past, as they look toward the future.
“There is continued investment in this facility and we’re trying to prepare ourselves for the next 40 years,” Lane said.