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Hyundai-Kia aim for world leadership

Korean automakers showcase American technical centre

Published: December 6, 2011, 9:00 AM

Hyundai and Kia are two of the hottest brands in the market these days. Contrary to their early days, their phenomenal growth is based on product, not just price.

Anyone who doubts that occasion would quickly change their mind if they could see what takes place at the new Hyundai-Kia America Technical Center (HATCI) here, as I have just done.

More than 350 people spend every waking moment of the day ensuring that Hyundai and Kia products not only meet the needs and expectations of North American consumers, but that they do so better than products from other companies.

This is more than a marketing exercise or a PR move to pad the already impressive quality numbers being posted by the South Korean siblings. Behind the walls at HATCI engineers and scientists dissect – literally – every component destined for use on Kia and Hyundai products to be sold here, as well as some destined for other markets.

The process involves benchmarking the best by identifying, procuring, testing and tearing them apart to see what makes them so good. Then applying that knowledge to parts used for Kia and Hyundai – with an eye to making them last longer or work even better.

We saw a complicated mechanism that opened and closed a rear door of a Forte every few seconds; it has been doing that for a month. Across the room a Honda windshield and wiper system was relentlessly swiping away sprays of water – and had done so for two weeks, around the clock. In another lab we saw an Infiniti instrument panel on shelves in a myriad of pieces while In another area of the 200,000 square foot building sat a row of bicycles, strollers, baby carriages, coolers, even a Barbeque – all of which had been digitally mapped so their dimensions and shapes could be transmitted to various Hyundai & Kia design labs around the world to ensure that new products coming to North America had provisions for the everyday items used and transported here.

On one of three chassis dynamometers, a Sorento was being tested for hydrocarbon emissions while the exhaust manifolds of a 2.4-litre Theta four-cylinder engine glowed bright red after several hours of wide-open throttle on a dynamometer across the hall. Doors with lock and window mechanisms intact were going through heat/cold cycles in a climate chamber. There was even a complete measurement system aimed at defining the ideal cup holder with a cabinet full of every imaginable soft drink, coffee and water container to be found in North America. All had been digitally measured and that data sent to design studios in Europe, Japan, China, South Korea and California. Yes, there were several Tim cups in there!

In that same part of the building Lexus seats were being digitally measured in a nearby seat lab. Dan Vivian, director of engineering design at HATCI said that after extensive interviews with current and competitive customers they have come up with a system that measures seat comfort. Those factors are used in designing and building seats for vehicles built in Alabama and Georgia plants – Sorento, Sante Fe, Sonata and the upcoming Kia Optima. It doesn’t stop there. The seats are monitored for compliance to the original standards over fixed periods of time and use to ensure they do not deteriorate.

The facility may be new but the old-fashioned hands-on approach is used. The engineers themselves do the disassembly. I’ve seen similar shops where mechanics and technicians took things apart and set them out for examination by the designers or engineers. At HATCI those people take things apart themselves so they have a true sense of how they fit during assembly, how they work with other adjacent components etc. In an effort to encourage fresh thinking and continual advancement, each engineer is also required to identify two innovative technologies each month that could be used within Hyundai-Kia and submit those for an internal engineering publication.

Kia and Hyundai have constructed massive new assembly plants in Georgia and Alabama where cars, SUVs, engines and transmissions are produced. They have a massive proving ground in the Mohave desert and separate design studios in California. Common to all is a motto on the wall at HATCI – world leadership in quality, value, efficiency and performance.

Not too long ago European and Japanese car-makers scoffed at the mention of South Korean vehicles. Now all but a few are looking at their tail lights as Hyundai-Kia rapidly gain consumer confidence and market share at the expense of others. There is every reason to believe that success will continue.