EDGE An epic commute: Nokian Tyres, Volkswagen, Wacker train Chattanooga region workers overseas

EDGE An epic commute: Nokian Tyres, Volkswagen, Wacker train Chattanooga region workers overseas

May 1st, 2019 by Mike Pare in EDGE

Contributed photo by Nokian Tyres / A Nokian Tyres employee works at the company's plant in Finland. Nokian is known for its winter tires, but is expanding its all-season products in the United States.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

“It will enable the workers to get onto the machines, see how they work, how the overall manufacturing process works.”
Wes Boling of Nokian Tyres about a group of Dayton factory employees who will travel to Finland and Russia

Some 5,000 miles separate Dayton, Tennessee, from St. Petersburg, Russia, but the two cities share a common business tie that 50 local workers are discovering this month and next.

The Nokian Tyres employees are among the first hired to run a planned new tire production plant in Dayton, which officials say will be one of the most advanced in the world. They're spending six weeks in May and June at Nokian's St. Petersburg factory or at another plant in the company's home base in nearby Finland.

The workers will take back to Dayton what they've learned as they help launch the Rhea County factory early next year.

Contributed by Nokian Tyres / Nokian Tyres started in 1932 in Finland. Shown is the company's manufacturing operation and headquarters in Nokia in that Scandinavian nation.

Contributed by Nokian Tyres / Nokian Tyres started...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

"It will be fascinating," says Wes Boling, Nokian's marketing communications manager for the $360 million Dayton facility that's under construction off U.S. Highway 27. "The big focus is getting the launch team trained."

Nokian, one of nearly 1,000 foreign-based companies that operate facilities in Tennessee, is the latest multinational company doing business in Southeast Tennessee to give some of its workforce training internationally.

Volkswagen's Chattanooga auto assembly plant did, and still does, give some workers an opportunity to travel to operations in Germany and other countries to grow their skills.

Wacker, another German company with a polysilicon production plant in Charleston, Tennessee, sent some of its lead chemical operators to its Burghausen, Germany, factory for an intensive multi-month program before powering up in 2016.

Boling says that Nokian's Russian plant about 45 minutes outside of St. Petersburg is the company's most advanced presently within the company.

"Our machines are very customized," he says. "It will enable the workers to get onto the machines, see how they work, how the overall manufacturing process works. We've built a strong culture in Russia."

In Finland, where Nokian started in 1932, those facilities have a stronger focus on research and development and frontline testing, Boling says.

The Dayton employees who travel to Nokia, Finland, will have more of a chance to bore into those endeavors as opposed to pure manufacturing, he says.

"At Nokia, they'll get to know the company a little bit," Boling says. "It doesn't have the same level of [manufacturing] volume. The technology is not as representative as what Russia has to offer."

He says that Nokian is sending employees who can be leaders in their respective areas of the new Dayton facility.

"It's a great opportunity to have a head start," Boling says, adding that both blue-collar and some managers are among the travelers.

While the group is in Russia and Finland, equipment is to be installed at the Dayton facility, he says.

At Volkswagen in Chattanooga, the plant continues to send employees to other facilities to learn, said Amanda Plecas, the factory's head of communication.

One option is a program in which four of the plant's engineers can go to another facility for six months to a year, she says.

"It's like a study exchange," Plecas says. "As cars become more like computers and have much more high-tech systems, we need our engineers also to be equipped for that."

At Wacker, with major operations in Southeast Tennessee, a group of lead chemical operators trained six months in Burghausen, Germany, to ready for that plant's startup in 2016.

The $2.5 billion polysilicon plant in Bradley County marked the biggest-ever single manufacturing investment in the state.

Polysilicon is the raw material used in the production of solar power panels.

At Nokian in Dayton, commercial tire production remains on schedule to begin in 2020 and hiring is ongoing.

Boling says that from 150 to 200 employees will be on board by year's end at the 830,000-square-foot plant.

"We continue to be encouraged by the applications on our website," he says, adding that plans are to be up to about 400 employees within the next couple of years. "We plan to hire a lot more folks.

The company, known for its winter tires, wants to expand its all-season products to the Southeast U.S. and the rest of America.

The factory will fuel the company's quest to double North American sales by 2023, specializing in car and light truck all-season tires. In addition to making 4 million tires a year, an on-site distribution facility at the Dayton plant will store as many as 600,000 units.