If Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals were created in today’s manufacturing climate, they might not comprise the operations of Ford’s sprawling Rouge plant. Instead, a more fitting subject would be the mass of small and large manufacturers lining Macomb County’s Mound, Van Dyke and Groesbeck Roads.
According to SEMCOG data, the roads see the highest concentration of buildings zoned for industry and manufacturing in Southeast Michigan, forming a visible topographical ‘V’ extending from an apex at McNichols Road in Detroit. These manufacturers, from one-garage machine shops to full-scale automotive plants, continue on this ‘V’ trajectory for over 10 miles in a high concentration — some even beyond 23 Mile Road.
In fact, there are more than 40,000 manufacturing jobs located on these roads, according to SEMCOG. That’s over half of Macomb County’s 70,000 manufacturing jobs, whose manufacturing workforce is higher than Oakland and Wayne counties.
Calling this region home is Ford’s Sterling Axle plant and Van Dyke Electric Powertrain Center, Stellantis’ Sterling Heights Assembly and Sterling Stamping Plant, and General Motors’s sprawling 710-acre Global Tech Center. There are also several large defense and aerospace contractors like BAE Systems and General Dynamics.
It’s the medium-sized shops, however, with established roots like Ameristeel, that make up the bulk of the businesses in these corridors. A supplier and fabricator of steel, Ameristeel is a family-owned business with split ownership between father and founder Warren Damman and his three sons Chris, Michael, and Tripp. The company has spent more than 30 years in the corridor primarily as a steel supplier and processor.
“My father passed ownership to us within the last year,” Ameristeel co-owner Tripp Damman said. “We are currently in the process of delegating all the responsibilities he had when he was running the business. Our goal right now is to take what he's built and continue growing it.”
With a steel supply center on Doreka in Fraser and fabrication facility on Groesbeck Highway in Warren, Ameristeel is in the unique position to supply material and manufacture products to a diverse array of clients in the automotive, defense, point of purchase and fluid transfer industries. Its supply center possesses anywhere between one to two million pounds of steel for customers and its own operations alike.
All of those companies are located within five miles of Ameristeel’s Groesbeck location.
“We do work with a lot of companies on these roads,” Damman said. “Just on Groesbeck we’ve worked with Flex-N-Gate, Iroquois Stamping, and PT Tech,” Damman said. “This area has the most heavy and dense population of fabricators and manufacturers, and we’ve got a great relationship with most of our neighbors.”
Big Kids on The Block
So, how exactly did this manufacturing ecosystem begin?
The roots of Macomb County’s ‘V’ shaped industrial corridor dates back to the World War II era, said Vicky Rowinski, Director at the Macomb County Department of Planning & Economic Development.
“The Mound, Van Dyke corridor is our billion-dollar corridor,” Rowinski said. “But everything was once anchored by the Detroit Arsenal. Many defense manufacturers were established along these roads during WWII.”
Located in between these two corridors as if it were the entrance of a funnel, the Detroit Tank Arsenal Tank Plant (now known as the Detroit Arsenal) was established as the first mass manufacturing tank plant within the U.S. in 1940. The plant produced over 22,000 tanks during the war years.
“Afterward, a lot of these companies stuck around and merged into the automotive industry,” Rowinski said.
Yet, it isn’t just the arsenal that stimulated these large corridors. Moving north on Mound, another large reason for manufacturers to stay on the corridor opened in 1956 — the GM Tech Center. More than 60 years later, GM remains dedicated to that original mission, said Victor Cabral, GM’s Director of Global Manufacturing Innovation.
“The General Motors Global Technical Center is globally recognized as the preeminent innovation center for automotive engineering, design, and advanced technology,” Cabral said.
As for the ‘V’ region, Cabral concurred with Rowinski on the arsenal’s role.
“The corridor naturally developed from Detroit northward as many of the earliest auto factories were situated on Detroit’s east side. As the need for new factories arose, they naturally expanded northward toward available acreage. Plants require tools and equipment, so the supplier companies naturally followed the growth.”
This ecosystem feeds into GMs operations from the ground level.
“In Macomb County, GM has 97 suppliers that support our manufacturing operations. They include suppliers of adhesives, aluminum castings, connecting rods, cradles, engine sensors, fascias, HVAC modules, seats and window regulators.”
Not Just Automotive and Defense
In recent history, many of Macomb’s manufacturers made a move to diversify their offerings, Rowinski said.
“When we go back to 2008-09 when automotive took a huge hit, many of these companies were forced to take a look at their portfolio. For the last 10 years, we have focused on supporting diversification and making sure these businesses have a multitude of customers from different sectors.”
According to Rowinski, the County identifies five target areas to support in the region:
● Automotive and Mobility
● Aerospace and Defense
● Automation and Robotics
● Logistics and Distribution
● Food and Agriculture
In addition to diversification, manufacturers are also faced with the challenges presented by the rapid speed of technological change. To keep the region’s manufacturers competitive, organizations like Automation Alley and the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center have teamed up with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to spread Industry 4.0 awareness and provide a path to technology adoption on the factory floor. In addition, through its “Macomb NEXT” initiative, Macomb County is bringing in industry experts to speak on every segment of Industry 4.0 technology for its small and large manufacturers.
“Macomb NEXT is able to open their eyes to what the new technology does and how they can incorporate technology to increase their return on investment,” Rowinski said.
GM Recommendations for Small Manufacturers in the V
While Michigan’s history is steeped in manufacturing — particularly in and around Macomb County — it’s critical that manufacturers understand and embrace new technologies if this industry is to flourish here in the future.
“Success in Smart Manufacturing and Industry 4.0 requires people to test, develop and replicate the chosen technologies across your industry,” Cabral said. “It also requires financial resources to proof your concepts and replicate your solutions.”
Ameristeel is among the companies in Macomb County pursuing that path.
Damman said the recent upgrade from traditional CNC machinery to more advanced TRUMPF lasers and brakes opened up new markets for them to explore.
“Right now, we are working with GM Defense with the goal of becoming a production supplier. We are working on our quality to make that jump into that next realm of possibilities for us,” Damman said.
To facilitate this next step in the business’ evolution, Damman said the family business is looking to combine its operations at one location. The region this new Ameristeel location will be is likely no surprise.
“Whether it’s on Groesbeck or nearby, we are looking to stay.”
Macomb County’s manufacturing corridor has stood the test of time for more than 80 years – in part due to a unique, collaborative approach to business relationships. The companies that call the area home will continue to face challenges as technology continues to change rapidly, but these companies can and will continue to thrive if they embrace change while also harnessing the spirit of innovation that has worked in the past.
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