Experts are divided on the potential gains facing American Axle Mfg. & Holdings Inc. if it were to pull out of the U.S. to escape the United Auto Workers union.

Richard Dauch, founder of the Tier I supplier, stoked rhetoric between his company and striking UAW workers this week by threatening to move his manufacturing operations elsewhere.

AAM workers in Michigan and New York walked off the job Feb. 26 after the supplier demanded wage rollbacks of up to $14 an hour. Dauch says the cuts are required to align AAM’s costs with those of its competitors.

But Ross Robson, former executive director of the Shingo Prize for Excellence in Manufacturing, says the expense of building axles long distances from AAM’s customers would provide questionable benefit.

“If you’re talking a rear-drive axle, that would be pretty significant,” he says. “Can it be done? Yes. But what the auto industry began realizing 10 years ago was logistics is expensive and transportation adds no value.

“This is the advantage of the transplants,” he adds. “Toyota (Motor Corp.) and Honda (Motor Co. Ltd.) source their parts from nearby.”

AAM is a major supplier of driveline and chassis components to General Motors Corp., particularly its fullsize pickups, SUVs and vans. But the work stoppage threatens to halt at least one GM car plant.

A strike-related parts shortage is expected to idle GM’s Hamtramck, MI, assembly site by the end of production today, GM spokesman Dan Flores tells Ward’s. Hamtramck builds the Cadillac DTS and Buick Lucerne fullsize sedans. The plant has operated on one shift since late last year, due to soft demand for its products.

However, Flores does not confirm whether the auto maker’s Lordstown, OH, assembly plant also will be idled. Lordstown builds the compact Chevy Cobalt sedan and coupe and G5 coupe, as well as the Pontiac G4/Pursuit coupe for Canadian and Mexican markets. Plant officials have suggested the site could face an altered production schedule as soon as April 4.

“We’re not confirming or speculating on anything until we tell employees, and there is some effect,” on production, Flores says.

Hamtramck and Lordstown produce a combined 1,690 units daily, according to Ward’s data.

GM’s production losses could rise to 7,690 vehicles per day if the strike begins affecting those car plants, according to Ward’s data.

So far, GM has lost an estimated 93,791 units of fullsize truck and van production from seven assembly plants it either has idled or slowed due to the parts shortage. Production also has been altered at 21 other GM manufacturing sites that supply powertrain parts.

The altered production schedules began Feb. 28. GM has said it would be “a long time” before the strike affected truck sales, due to high inventories. The auto maker declines to say whether that is still the case, noting it will provide an update during its regular monthly sales call on April 1.

According to Ward’s data, inventories of nearly all GM fullsize pickups and SUVs stood at more than 100 day’s supply in February.

Dauch told the Detroit Free Press this week the supplier has the flexibility to source all of its business to other locations around the world. AAM operates plants in Mexico, South America, Europe and Asia.

The UAW repeatedly has said that it stands firm in the negotiations because it is fighting to keep jobs in the U.S.

AAM spokeswoman Renee Rogers says Dauch did not specifically mean Mexico or any other low-cost country, but that the supplier has capacity at other locations, that include UAW-represented plants in Ohio and Oxford, MI.

“What we’re saying is we have capacity in other locations to have production in other locations, but it does not mean we have a desire to do so,” she says, adding the strategy for every AAM plant is to principally serve its region.

A.J. “Tony” Faria, director of the Office for Automotive Research in the Odette School of Business at the University of Windsor, ON, Canada, says the logistical cost of shipping a driveline from an AAM plant in Mexico, for example, to a GM truck plant in Pontiac, MI, would certainly be more expensive than if it came from nearby Detroit. But the total landed cost for a part coming from Mexico could be less, as labor costs in the country are about one-fifth of the U.S.

“It is doable,” he tells Ward’s. “You can ship bulky, heavy automotive components great distances. I think Dick Dauch is quite serious.”

Faria points to the engines GM ships from its Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. joint venture in China to an assembly plant in Ingersoll, ON, Canada, for the Chevrolet Equinox and Pontiac Torrent cross/utility vehicles. The 3.4L V-6 travels 11,000 miles (17,700 km) and takes 35 days to arrive. GM builds the same engine in Tonawanda, N.Y.

“GM determined it is cost-effective,” Faria says.

Chrysler LLC, which also buys parts from AAM, says logistics did play a role in its decision to build a new axle plant in Marysville, MI, which lies about 60 miles (97 km) north of its current axle facility in Detroit.

“It’s not that close compared to Detroit. (But) throughout Michigan, there’s enough road infrastructure, so we don’t have a problem” shipping to assembly plants in Sterling Heights, Warren and Detroit, says Chrysler spokesman Ed Saenz.

Chrysler says the AAM strike has not affected any of its assembly plants and does not anticipate any parts shortages, including the important new Dodge Ram fullsize pickup currently in production-launch mode.

AAM says its “all-in” hourly wage rate currently exceeds $73 an hour and could rise to $106 by 2012, making it uncompetitive compared with rivals such as Dana Corp.

Rogers says the two sides met Thursday, but while AAM’s contingent included some of its highest-ranking executives and a full bargaining team, the UAW responded with a group of negotiators that included only a few of its international negotiators.