AUBURN HILLS, MI – Safety supplier Takata Corp. starts construction of a new crash-test facility here that will allow much simpler compliance with the U.S. government’s revised New Car Assessment Program taking effect soon for the ’11 model year.

The Japanese supplier says it is the No.1 seatbelt producer globally and tied for second in the airbag market with TRW Automotive Holdings Corp., behind No.1 Autoliv Inc.

These three companies dominate the market for occupant-protection devices, but Takata claims it will have a significant competitive advantage with the arrival of a $6 million servo-controlled crash sled being built by Instron Structural Testing Systems in Germany.

“We are 100% committed to the continued advancement of life-saving technology, and this new sled facility allows us to keep moving forward,” Shige Takada, president and chief operating officer of Takata, says here at the groundbreaking ceremony.

The new sled is truly unique for its ability to simulate the nose-diving sensation that occurs when a vehicle is braking hard before a collision.

That pitch results in the occupants lurching upward, causing more severe head injuries and altering the effects of seatbelts and airbags. Conventional sleds are linear and only can simulate frontal and side impacts that occur without any braking beforehand.

Honda Motor Co. Ltd. and Ford Motor Co. are believed to be the only auto makers with similar sleds in North America. Takata has another in Berlin.

The supplier planned two years ago to add the sled at the technical center here, but the depressed automotive market forced a delay.

Takata has one crash sled here already, and it’s been in use for 18 years. Like its competitors, the supplier has “tried to emulate pitch in crude ways” by pre-angling the sled, says Mike Rains, director-testing and evaluation at Takata’s North American unit, TK Holdings Inc.

But that technique only goes so far, and occupant movement after the collision does not represent real-world crashes, Rains says.

“With the new sled, we can get the data from the vehicle manufacturer when they run a full car crash test,” he tells Ward’s.

“They can give us that pitch information down to millisecond precision – the angle, the motion – and we can program that into the new sled and run it as accurately as they do. So when we are developing our restraint system and airbags, we know right where the occupant will be.”

Without the new equipment, safety suppliers must estimate upward movement of occupants without knowing exactly how much pitch is expected. It’s only when the OEM runs the full-vehicle crash test that pitch can be quantified.

“At that point, we might find we have to go back and do some work. It just makes the process longer because we approximated,” Rains says. “Now we can approximate it much more accurately the first time. It’s a shorter product cycle.”

Another problem with the current equipment is the time necessary to set up for a crash test. It might take up to two days because current sleds are pneumatically controlled.

For instance, the pulse to initiate the test is controlled by a metering pin, which must be machined to a particular profile depending on how much air is necessary for the test.

“We have to make one of those pins, try it, measure it, see how it compares to our target. If it doesn’t work, we go back and have to take the whole sled apart to get to that pin and modify it,” Rains says. “Sometimes it can take two days, not a couple hours.”

However, the new system relies on hydraulic pressure controlled by a fast-acting rotating servo valve. A computer program determines the necessary target pulse to run the crash test.

“You don’t have to machine a pin or take anything apart,” Rains says. “You push some buttons and run it. What used to be days is now maybe hours at that point, and you’re ready to go.”

Robert Fisher, executive vice president of TK Holdings, says the new sled will allow Takata to meet new federal head-impact standards and the revised NCAP crash requirements much more easily.

New testing is required to account for small-stature adults and for neck and femur injuries, as well as chest deflection, or crush. Another new test requires a collision at the driver’s side door with an “oblique pole” measuring 12 ins. (30 cm) in diameter.

Rains considers the new sled a valuable tool for product development. “We expect we will get some additional business because of it.”

Takata already employs 650 people at technical facilities here, in nearby Pontiac and in Armada, MI. Some 40 jobs will be added to support the new facility, which will measure 18,500 sq.-ft. (1,718 sq.-m).

The expansion is expected to open next year, with a total investment of about $14 million. Government incentives add up to about $2.7 million over eight years, including a state tax credit of $800,000 over five years and a city tax abatement of $400,000 over six years.

Takata’s North American assembly operations are located in Cheraw, SC (airbag fabric); Kernersville, NC (fabric coatings); and Moses Lake, WA (pyrotechnic gas). Several plants also are located in Mexico, although two closed in recent years.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com