It’s a typical, sun-soaked, Southern California day as Steven Spielberg merges his Tesla onto the Pacific Coast Highway. The ground-breaking director has just left his L.A. home, on his way to a meeting about a new project. He glances up through the glass roof into the blue beyond, imagining the touch of the wind whipping by. He reaches down to the central control panel to slide open the sunroof. At that moment, he has interacted with a bit of Paducah, KY.
The connection comes via UACJ Whitehall Industries located in an unassuming facility near I-24’s exit 3. There, UACJ Whitehall extrudes aluminum into various parts for automobile manufacturers such as Tesla. And they are doing it with unmatched precision.
Whitehall began as a small machine shop in a garage in Luddington, Michigan. By 1974, they were manufacturing components for the copier industry for Kodak and Xerox. “It’s always been about precision, aluminum machining,” says Dave Cooper, UACJ Automotive Whitehall Industries COO. “Quality was always very important, and we’ve maintained that.” It is such an attention to precision that brought Whitehall into the automotive industry, supplying parts for customers who demand consistency and parts with the smallest of measurement tolerances. The business grew in Luddington, then Whitehall opened another plant in central Mexico in 2011 and then the Paducah facility in 2014. Whitehall was later acquired by UACJ, a Japanese company with a history dating back to 1897. UACJ had specialized mostly in rolled aluminum products, producing for aluminum cans, foil, and automotive body sheet.
“In automotive, we started with sunroof tracks and now do convertible top parts, structural components, the battery box for electric vehicles, and bumpers,” adds Dave. “This plant in Paducah produces a lot of the sunroof racks—some of the most challenging ones we have. That stared with a relationship with Tesla. At the time, it was a risk to go with that new Tesla car company. It was a big bet for us. But they are the real deal.” In recent years, there has been a shift in using more aluminum in vehicle construction due to its lightweight nature. That means more business for Whitehall. One area of growth has been in aluminum bumpers. “We do a lot of testing,” says Dave. “These are crash alloys. If a vehicle crashes, it has to absorb the energy. We make sure our aluminum has the right properties to do that. It’s all meant to protect the occupants.”
Much of UACJ Whitehall’s aluminum parts are produced through the process of extrusion. Aluminum logs (about the size of telephone poles) are segmented, heated, and pushed through a die at 5 million pounds of pressure. The best comparison of the procedure is that of the Pay-Doh Fun Factory. The aluminum exits each specific die in long planks which are then cut and further shaped according to the final products’ needs. Within the process are a few robots, designed to reduce repetitive injuries to humans and to ensure exacting measurements within the tiniest of tolerances. “In our extrusion, we are a leader in precision,” says Plant Manager Keith Ginter. “As we developed our extrusion, we were told that other plants said certain things couldn’t be done. But we didn’t have anyone here who’s said it couldn’t be done. We have some of the greatest engineers who strive for the best. We didn’t know what we couldn’t do. We didn’t see any limitations.” Tolerances are holding to less than the width of a human hair.
Precision has earned UACJ Whitehall final destination clients who appreciate the highest of quality. Those include Chevrolet Corvette, Tesla, BMW, General Motors, Toyota, Honda, Ford, Mercedes, Lexus, Nissan, and new electric vehicle company, Rivian, which produces trucks and SUVs. “We are nearly perfect on quality,” says Dave. “We received an award from GM for eight years with zero defects. We started with that mindset years ago. And now, all of a sudden, aluminum has become very popular in automobiles. That’s great for us and growth in Paducah. And Paducah does some of the most challenging parts we have. We’re in the right place at the right time.” UACJ Whitehall sees growth and expansion potential for the Paducah facility, a location they chose due to its location and the welcome and incentives from the city. They’ve also been in a position to hire employees from other manufacturing operations in the region that have closed down. Within the industry, UACJ Whitehall is in a good place. Geographically, Paducah is in just the right spot with UACJ Whitehall.