In 1976, the DRÄXLMAIER Group took its business activities to North America, setting up a production site for wiring harnesses in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. Forty-seven years later, the company has established itself in the USA as an interior systems supplier for premium automobile manufacturers. With manufacturing sites in South Carolina and California, DRÄXLMAIER services their customers on both coasts with innovative high-end products for vehicle interiors.
In 1958, Lisa and Fritz Dräxlmaier Sr. ventured into the automotive business by founding their own company in Vilsbiburg, Germany. The first order called for the production of 50,000 cable sets for the Goggomobil, a subcompact car built by Hans Glas GmbH in nearby Dingolfing. Establishing their own business was a risk because of short lead times and uncertain interest in a small car, which would later become a cult item around the world. However, the hard work and ingenuity of the founders quickly brought the company onto a successful path. With the help of female home-based workers and dinner forks, the first wire harnesses were soon produced and delivered to its customer. Shortly thereafter, DRÄXLMAIER received its first interior order, also from Hans Glas: the door panels for the Goggomobil. The two main business segments of the company were born.
As the company began to increase its product range, it invested it in new equipment for the production of door panels and instrument panels. In 1964, the new company building was constructed in Vilsbiburg, which still serves as corporate headquarters today after numerous expansions. By 1976, the DRÄXLMAIER Group had established itself in Germany as an innovative and reliable supplier, which counted Audi, BMW and Volkswagen among its customers.
In 1976, the DRÄXLMAIER Group embarked on a journey to a new frontier, as it expanded its business to North America. The move came after Volkswagen AG called upon DRÄXLMAIER to supply wiring harnesses and door panels for the VW Rabbit, the U.S. version of the VW Golf, which was going to be built at the automaker's new U.S. in Westmoreland, Penn. As location for its first North American plant site, DRÄXLMAIER selected Niagara Falls in Canada. After moving in its own building in 1977, the company incorporated under the name NETP (Niagara Electrical Technical Products) started to make wiring harnesses and door panels for VW later that year. By the early 1980s, orders for other automakers had also been acquired.
With the competitive advantage of operating in Canada slowly diminishing, the DRÄXLMAIER management decided relocate NETP to Wheatfield, N.Y., in 1985. Concentrating now entirely on the electrical segment, the company provided Ford, Volkswagen and other Tier 1 suppliers with harnesses for interior and exterior lighting systems, instrument clusters, wiper and A/C motors, instrument panels, and automatic break system controls. Many of these products came with insert-molded PVC grommets.
The closure of the VW plant in Pennsylvania in 1988 and the subsequent loss of business saw NETP take on more contracts from the Tier 1 suppliers to the Detroit 3. The announcement of BMW AG in 1992 to build its own U.S. production site near Spartanburg, S.C., prompted the DRÄXLMAIER Group to rethink its strategy for the Americas. With most of the wiring harness production already transferred to Reynosa, Mexico, where NETP had contracted with a local company starting the same year, it was decided to phase out the production in Wheatfield and move the administrative side to South Carolina by 1995. There, a new plant site would not only house offices and a customer support center but also manufacture luxury interiors.
In 1996, the DRÄXLMAIER Group moved to its new U.S. home in Duncan, S.C. Operating out of a rental building in Hillside Park – the new facility on East Main Street was still under construction – the first interior products included the leather version of the cockpit for the upscale version of the BMW Z3, as well as the door inserts for all variants of the sporty two-seater. After the move into its own building has been completed in the summer of 1998, the door inserts and e-box for the first generation BMW X5 were added to U.S. product portfolio one year later, followed by the door panels for the BMW X4 in 2002. On the administrative side, the Duncan facility also handled the sequencing of the wiring harnesses from the DRÄXLMAIER sister plant in Reynosa, Mexico, to the BMW factory in nearby Greer, S.C.
Business opportunities with the Detroit 3 – Chrysler, Ford and General Motors – were also pursued and secured. The sales and engineering office in Detroit, established in 2000 in the suburb of Farmington Hill, Mich., helped spread the news about the outstanding competences of DRÄXLMAIER in the interior field. Shortly after, the first orders from the Detroit automakers were reeled in, first from Ford in 2000 and then from Cadillac, the luxury brand of General Motors, in 2004. The order for the leather version of the instrument panel of the second-generation BMW X5 SAV followed shortly after the same year. To accommodate the new business, the Duncan site underwent two expansions between 2003 and 2005, which included the addition of a high-bay and low-bay warehouse, as well as new production and office space.
On the environmental side, the Duncan plant site set an internal benchmark in 2001 in terms of sustainability when it became the first DRÄXLMAIER location to earn the ISO 14001 certification for an effective and consistent environmental management system that achieves environmental protection in balance with the company's economic goals. The site's recycling program was also recognized by several of South Carolina's state authorities during that time.
Hit hard by the global recession of 2008, DRÄXLMAIER picked up steam again in the U.S. as the economy recovered. By 2010, the Duncan location manufactured the complete interior – instrument panel, center console and door panels – for the high-volume BMW X3. Production of interior components for the next-generations of the BMW X5 and its sportier sibling, the X6, followed in 2014 and 2015. The order for complete interior for the BMW X4 helped ensure that the DRÄXLMAIER plant in Duncan was operating near capacity by 2014. After expanding the injection molding and warehouse areas in 2011, the addition of a new production wing became necessary in 2016.
As all activities in Detroit were slowly phased out, a field office near the new Volkswagen site in Chattanooga, Tenn., was established in 2010 to provide tech support for the wiring harnesses that were supplied by the DRÄXLMAIER plant in Puebla, Mexico, for the U.S. version of the VW Passat. One year later, the office moved to the VW Supplier Park from where DRÄXLMAIER is sequencing the Mexico-made harnesses directly to the assembly lines at the automaker's factory next door.
By 2013, the excellent reputation of the DRÄXLMAIER Group's competences also attracted strong interest from automotive startups in California's Silicon Valley. Known more for its computer and software industry, the San Francisco bay area is now home to some of the up-and-coming automakers, primarily in the areas of electrical powertrains and autonomous driving. Following the setup of a field office at a customer's site, a permanent engineering and sales office was established in Mountain View, Calif., in 2015. A sequencing warehouse for door panels was opened later that year in Fremont, Calif.
To accommodate incoming business and new technologies, the Duncan location added a new assembly hall in 2016, which almost doubled its production space. New business for California EV manufacturers called for a new production site in the Bay Area, which led to the opening of an interior plant in Livermore in 2017. The site also consolidated the sequencing warehouse that was previously located in Fremont. In 2018, a new logistics hub was set up in Vance, Ala., to handle the sequencing of instrument panels from the DRÄXLMAIER plant in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, to the local Daimler factory.
Preparing young talents for careers in automotive has been at the heart of the DRÄXLMAIER Group since the mid-1980s. The Duncan location welcomed its first class of apprentices in 2020 to receive vocational training in mechatronics. The three-year dual vocational training program consists of on-the-job training and classroom instruction. Through the partnership with of a local school, the plant will develop students to be future leaders within the company.
The growth and impact of the DRÄXLMAIER Group in the local community is also becoming evident on the U.S. West Coast. In 2022, the Livermore Valley Chamber of Commerce recognized the local DRÄXLMAIER plant with the "Manufacturer of the Year" award.
Automation and digital solutions continue to play a larger role in production and logistics. After adding two automated door panel assembly lines at the DRÄXLMAIER plant in Duncan in 2018, automated processes are getting more refined thanks to the use of artificial inteligence and digital transformation. Since 2022, automated guided vehicles are used to transport materials across the production floor. The intelligence, adaptability and scalability of these robots help increase productivity and decrease C02 emissions.
The professional development of young talents in the U.S. took a giant leap forward in early 2023 when the first three graduates from our in-house apprenticeship program at the Duncan site became full-time DRÄXLMAIER employees.