DETROIT – Schaeffler Group will launch U.S. production of the MultiAir valve-control system for Fiat Automobiles SpA in June, beginning what could be the start of something big in North America for the German supplier.

The first Cheraw, SC, MultiAir units will be headed to Dundee, MI, to support production of 1.4L FIRE engines for the North American market Fiat 500, slated for assembly at Chrysler Group LLC’s Toluca, Mexico, plant.

But there already are plans for Chrysler to use the technology on two of its own engines, and Schaeffler says it has other auto makers interested in adopting the advanced valve-control technology.

“There is interest on a global basis,” Peter Pleus, president-Schaeffler Group Automotive, tells Ward’s at the North American International Auto Show.

“And the technology is not restricted to just cars,” he adds, suggesting there is interest in employing the valve-control system on larger diesel engines offered in commercial vehicles.

Pleus says applications beyond Chrysler-Fiat could emerge within three or four years.

Cheraw is in the process of adding 300 workers for production of MultiAir for the Fiat 500, with production projected to top 100,000 units annually.

Schaeffler officials decline to predict how big volumes could get, but the Fiat 500 is just the beginning for Cheraw. It also will produce MultiAir modules for Chrysler’s Tiger Shark 2.4L 4-cyl. engine – a revamped version of the Global Engine originally developed with Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. that also is built in Dundee.

Tiger Shark is due early this year, with applications in Chrysler’s C- and D-segment entries.

Cheraw also will supply the system for a version of Chrysler’s new Pentastar V-6 that took a Ward’s 10 Best Engine award for 2011 and will proliferate throughout the auto maker’s lineup.

But continued pressure industry-wide to improve fuel economy is heightening interest for what Schaeffler brands as UniAir, and driving much of the growth the supplier has enjoyed in North America over the past year.

Fiat originally developed MultiAir/UniAir with Schaeffler and uses the technology on its FIRE small engines in Europe. The auto maker also will employ the system on a new 2-cyl. engine for Europe. Schaeffler bought licensing control in 2001 and now has the rights to market the technology under its own brand to other auto makers worldwide.

Adding UniAir improves fuel economy about 10%, Schaeffer says. But coupled with engine downsizing and turbocharging, gains can increase to 25%.

“And it delivers more torque at the low end, so the car is more fun to drive,” Pleus says.

Schaeffler expects worldwide revenues – at an estimated $9 billion in 2010 – to jump 30% in 2011, driven largely by the industry’s efforts to improve conventional powertrain technology and new-vehicle volume growth in emerging markets.

“The only weak point is Western Europe, which we expect to be flat this year,” says Schaeffler Chairman Juergen M. Geissinger. “But by 2020, India and China are expected to be at the same volume as the developed markets.”

Last year, Schaeffler saw North American sales soar 50% over 2009 to a record $1.6 billion, and it is forecasting another 30% gain in a market that overall is expected to rise only 10%.

The supplier added 600 U.S. jobs last year, and will hire another 400 people in 2011, Schaeffler Group North America President and CEO Bruce G. Warmbold says.

Many of Schaeffler’s products match up perfectly with U.S. directives to improve corporate average fuel economy to 35.5 mpg (6.6 L/100 km) by 2016.

Last year, the company launched production of more-efficient dual-clutch transmissions in Mexico for Ford Motor Co.’s new U.S.-market Fiesta, creating 350 jobs there. Another 100 workers will be hired for the DCT line this year, Warmbold says.

Output of a more advance torque converter began in Europe last year, and Schaeffler says production projects now are under way with several OEMs in the U.S. and Asia.

“We’re delighted by the development (toward fuel efficiency) in the U.S.,” Pleus notes.

dzoia@wardsauto.com