Heavy equipment maker Komatsu emphasizes training, running ‘greener’ as Chattanooga facility milestone nears

Photo by Matt Hamilton/ Workers assemble excavators at Komatsu of Chattanooga.
Photo by Matt Hamilton/ Workers assemble excavators at Komatsu of Chattanooga.

As Komatsu America Corp. draws closer to its 40th anniversary in Chattanooga, the Tokyo-based company continues to look to the future.

Walt Nichols, an 18-year Komatsu veteran who's in his seventh year as the Chattanooga plant's general manager, says business "is still pretty good" for the heavy equipment maker, heading toward its 2026 milestone.

"(Business) is down a little globally," he says, adding that Komatsu Chattanooga produced about 2,200 vehicles last year. "North America is about 25% of our business, and North America (business) is still pretty strong, so that's a good thing.

"Back in the day, Chattanooga was a manufacturing city -- Combustion, Wheland (Foundry), DuPont," he adds. "That went away, but now we're seeing a resurgence with companies like Volkswagen and Wacker, and that makes getting workers challenging."

Nichols says training and staffing are particular points of emphasis for Komatsu these days, given the wave of retirements that hit the company during the global pandemic.

"Part of the dilemma is that Komatsu has been a place where people come and stay," he says, "so we haven't had to hire a lot of people.

"Before, when we'd hire somebody, we'd train them by putting them on a line with 50 people who'd been here for 20 years each. That on-the-job training, with that seniority, worked. Replacing that skill set is very tough."

Today, Nichols says, Komatsu is working with Hamilton, Marion and Sequatchie county schools to get interested students earlier starts on training. Each of the five students who comprised the first pre-apprentice class two years ago joined Komatsu full-time, he says. Six students are training this year, and hopefully there will be 10 next year.

"Those kids come in here half a day, then go to school half a day," he says. "It's been very successful so far, and those kids have a job waiting when they cross that stage (at graduation) if they want it."

Carbon neutrality is another goal for Komatsu, Nichols says.

"Ultimately, we want to be carbon-neutral here by 2050," he says. "It's a big undertaking, a big task, but (company leadership in) Japan wanted to set those targets. We're a very environmentally conscious company, and (leadership) wanted to set that bar and push those limits."

Nichols says 93% of the energy consumed at Komatsu's Chattanooga plant is electricity, but the company buys "100% green" power from EPB.

"The residual is gas," he says, "but we're working on converting that to green electric.

"The (Environmental Protection Agency) regulations regarding reduction of our carbon footprint have really changed the dynamics of the manufacturing process," Nichols says. "It's a lot more complex, and a lot more costly, to put together that equipment and meet those requirements -- and the supply chain has become more complex as well."

According to a display in the Chattanooga plant's reception area, North American Royalties opened a manufacturing plant on Signal Mountain Road in 1952. The NAR plant made munitions for military use during the Korean War.

Per the display, Lockheed bought the plant in 1966 and produced airplane parts until 1972, when it sold the plant to Koehring-Lorain. That company operated there as a crane-assembly plant starting in 1972, then sold to Komatsu in 1985. At the time, it was the third major Japanese investment in Tennessee and the first in Chattanooga.

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