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June 12, 2010

Delphi marking 100 years in Lockport

As Delphi Thermal Systems looks to the future, the company also wants to remember the past this summer. In August it will have been 100 years since Herbert C. Harrison founded the Harrison Radiator Co., which is where Delphi Thermal traces its lineage from.

Delphi’s presence in Lockport is now the Thermal System Technical Center located on Upper Mountain Road. Employing 250 people, the Lockport center stayed with Delphi as the manufacturing plant was sold back to General Motors last year. The move was a part of Delphi’s plan to emerge from its four-year stay in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. That also included the sale of four other plants and its steering business to GM, making Delphi a much smaller company than it was before.

But with that dark chapter behind them, Delphi is now focused on the future, said Steve Kiefer, Delphi Thermal’s general director of engineering. Kiefer also serves as executive director of heating, ventilation, air conditioning and systems for Delphi.

“Things are quite well,” Kiefer said. “We’re looking forward to the new Delphi. Overall our company is strong and we’re very optimistic. Our product lines are smaller but they’re products that can win in the marketplace, we’re focused on what the market wants.”

As in the past, Delphi Thermal will continue to work closely with GM, its biggest customer. The two are also roommates, as they will share the Upper Mountain Road complex.

The GM Components Holdings plant employs about 1,400 salaried and hourly workers.

In 1910, Harrison developed the first hexagonal cell honeycomb radiator, the first product created by Harrison Radiator Co. In 1917, Harrison was sold to United Motors, which then was bought by General Motors the following year. It became Harrison Radiator Division, General Motors, until GM turned its component makers into Delphi Automotive Systems in 1995. By 1999, Delphi would become its own company, and Lockport’s plant and technical center became Delphi Thermal Systems, until the bankruptcy emergence in 2009.

Since its founding with radiators, Delphi Thermal has developed a number of new products, including the early in-dash car heater and under-the-hood air conditioning system. There’s also an under-the-floor climate control system, developed in 2002, that allows passengers can control the temperature of their own areas in the car.

Delphi recently developed a liquid charge air cooler that helps diesel engines reduce emissions while still improving efficiency. In the coming months, Delphi will lead the transition to a new air conditioning refrigerant that helps make vehicle emissions cleaner, the company said.

And those were developed in Lockport.

“Many of our technological innovations have been developed in Lockport since our founding,” James Bertrand, president Delphi Thermal Systems, said. “Our employees at the Lockport Technical Center are particularly proud of our history and the innovations this division has pioneered. The city of Lockport has played a significant part of our history.”

Also, Delphi Thermal has a history that spans beyond developing products for the automobile. In 1941, Delphi supplied heat exchangers to U.S. Armed Forces for aircraft, military tanks and Navy vessels; in 1962, astronaut space suits were outfitted with Delphi heat exchangers; and in 1978, Delphi built a 100-ton regenerator. It was the company’s largest single-unit heat exchanger made for industrial use.

Kiefer said Delphi Thermal will continue to focus on new and innovative products. And the Lockport center will play a big role.

“It’s very important,” Kiefer said. “The site will be developing new and advanced technological products.”

Delphi’s Thermal Systems will be celebrating its 100-year anniversary with its more than 6,000 employees globally across 14 sites in 12 countries. The company has 14 major technical centers, including four others in North America, which are Auburn Hills, Mich.; Kokomo, Ind.; Warren, Ohio; and Juarez, Mexico. Earlier this month, Lockport celebrated the occasion during an “excellence week” event.

There are challenges ahead, such as an uncertain economy and an auto industry that continues to struggle, something seen in the U.S. Commerce Department’s monthly report. According to it, auto sales fell about 1.7 percent in May.

And then there’s the retirement benefits of the salaried retirees. Turned over to the federal government during the bankruptcy process, retirees are fighting to have their pensions restored, as many saw their benefits cut. That fight is tied up in court now.

But for the first time in a long time, Delphi feels it can handle those challenges.

“We are very optimistic and look forward to the next 100 years,” Kiefer said.

Contact reporter Joe Olenick at 439-9222, ext. 6241.

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