AUBURN HILLS, MI - The North American Technical Center of FEV Engine Technology Inc. appears modest enough. The one-story structure could house any number of businesses in any number of industrial parks dotting the so-called "high-tech corridor" here just north of Detroit.

Get "behind the door," though, and the place's lavish fitment of state-of-the-art powertrain testing and development equipment would make any OEM engine engineer weep with envy. That FEV (FEV Motorentechnik GmbH & Co. KG, if you must know the full name) itself makes a lot of the highly specialized support equipment hardly discounts the impression that this stuff must be hugely expensive.

FEV's Auburn Hills tech center houses - among other things we're not allowed to see - seven abnormally spacious engine dynamometer test cells, two chassis dynos, engine build facilities and a fuel injection lab. The 24,500-sq.-ft. (2,276 sq.-m) facility will enjoy a doubling of its size in an upcoming expansion this summer. That's in addition to FEV's Aachen, Germany, headquarters that boasts 50 engine test benches, anechoic engine and chassis test benches and dynos, an emissions chassis dyno and even its own test track. The number of total employees is approaching 1,000.

All this from an independent, privately held engine research/development/design company?

Ah, but you assume that non-OEM engine research and development is and always shall be "small" business. That just ain't so anymore.

"We're finding that OEMs just aren't considering all engine development 'core competency' anymore," claims Robert J. Last, manager-marketing and business development for FEV's North American Technical Center. "The other (business) we're seeing is overflow," he says, of fuel-economy and emissions development that the OEMs simply can't handle - or, more often, can't quickly get through their bloated bureaucracies.

"We need to be faster than the OEMs," asserts Mr. Last. If engine R&D houses like FEV - and there are competitors - can't be light on their feet and focused, there's not much need for their services.

Mr. Last says FEV's quickest-growing area, however, is in "off-tool development," assisting OEMs with engine-management algorithm development, on-road testing and emissions compliance for new vehicles, new markets and new emissions targets.

The between-the-lines message: niche-market engine development. That's the low-volume production or future-production applications that require intensive work. The OEMs still hold onto the volume-development stuff.

As an example, Ford Motor Co. enlisted FEV to assist with the highly touted DIATA (Direct Injection Aluminum Through-bolt Assembly) 1.2L diesel engine showcased in Ford's P2000 high-mileage car. FEV worked on DIATA's top-end design and handled full NVH design features.

FEV, crows Mr. Last, can take on total clean-sheet engine design and development and even can build the darn thing. Anything short of total design - working with OEM customers on an existing engine program - is accommodated by engineers and researchers fluent with all current computer-aided design platforms: CATIA, SDRC, Unigraphics, or anything else you care to trot in and slap in the FEV floppy drives.

The large automakers may continue to maintain their hold on most powertrain development "core competencies," but FEV's breadth of activities betrays that the shift to outsourcing might be inevitable.

Consider electromechanical valvetrains (EMVs), which are a critical enabling technology to take internal combustion engines to the next level of efficiency. FEV has been working since 1980 on EMVs and "holds most of the patents" on the technology. Mr. Last says he believes at least one major automaker will have an EMV-equipped engine in production by 2005.

The company also is undertaking intensive research in aftertreatment technology and next-generation piezoelectric fuel injection, both crucial to producing lean-burn gasoline and diesel direct-injection engines that can attain future emissions standards. Mr. Last says, however, that FEV believes gasoline direct-injection engines compete directly with homogeneous-charge gasoline engines equipped with EMV. EMV-equipped engines, says FEV, which can idle at 200 rpm and selectively deactivate cylinders, can deliver more power and torque than gasoline direct-injection engines.

FEV Engine Technology's skyrocketing growth portends that the perceived last bastion of automakers' intellectual autonomy from suppliers - powertrain development - is being broached by highly focused R&D suppliers like FEV. Broached at the automakers' behest.

Hayes Lemmerz Wins Ford Steel Wheel Business

Ford Motor Co.'s Visteon Automotive Systems is turning all steel wheelmaking operations over to Hayes Lemmerz International Inc. in a deal that represents additional sales of $50 million annually for the supplier. All steel wheelmaking machinery at Visteon's Monroe, MI, plant will be shipped to Hayes, which will produce the wheels at plants in Kentucky, Missouri, Mexico and Brazil. Ford retains ownership of the tooling. No Visteon jobs will be lost, as workers will be trained to make halfshafts for front-drive vehicles.

Lear Moves Production,Acquires Peregrine Ops

Lear Corp. is moving some seat production for the Ford Windstar minivan from Oakville, Ont., to Lear's Romulus No. 2 plant in Michigan. Production has exceeded current capacity at the Oakville plant, so Lear will move second-row seat production to Romulus. The move, expected in May, results in 215 layoffs at Oakville. At Romulus, 100 hourly employees currently on layoff will return to work. Lear also acquires from Peregrine Inc. a Windsor, Ont., plant producing seat assemblies and door panels for General Motors Corp. vehicles.

Around the Industry

LucasVarity plc will sell its wiring systems business, comprising Lucas Rists and a 50% stake in Lucas SEI Wiring Systems, because the company considers it non-core. TRW Inc., which is acquiring LucasVarity, approves the sale. LucasVarity's Lucas Body Systems wins a multiyear contract to supply heating, ventilation and air conditioning controls for DaimlerChrysler's '00 Dodge and Plymouth Neon. ... Suoftec, a European joint venture for Superior Industries International Inc., has won multiyear contracts to supply cast aluminum wheels to Rover Group Ltd. for SUVs and passenger cars. Superior also announces a contract worth $50 million annually for aluminum wheels for a new vehicle arriving this fall. Superior has not identified the customer.