PLYMOUTH, MI – Automotive suppliers experiencing growth or even maintaining stability are hard to find in these troubled times.

Like other Tier 1 suppliers, Robert Bosch GmbH has been downsizing. Its current North American headcount stands at about 25,000 after the elimination of more than 2,000 positions.

But Bosch smartly identified electronics as a sector that would survive, regardless of the downturn’s severity.

Germany’s largest supplier invested $37.5 million in a new electronics technical center here to consolidate engineers and technicians from other facilities, mostly from the company’s North American headquarters several miles away in Farmington Hills.

The new facility opened in 2007 and employs 400 people. In April, that number will climb to 700 as more engineers will move to Plymouth from rented facilities at the Farmington Hills campus, says Tim Frasier, Bosch’s new regional president-automotive electronics North America.

At that point, Bosch’s electronics engineering for all of North America will be under one roof for the first time.

The additional staff is attached to Bosch’s chassis electronics business, dedicated to antilock braking and electronic stability control, which remain core to the Bosch portfolio.

About 30% of new vehicles in the U.S. were equipped with ESC in 2006, and that number is steadily climbing as auto makers meet the requirement that all light vehicles have the technology on board by 2012. The National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. expects the new mandate will prevent more than 2,000 traffic fatalities annually.

To accommodate the chassis electronics operations, Bosch is expanding its technical labs here to allow for more on-vehicle testing of components, Frasier says.

A roadway is being added through the back of the building, along with an attached secure parking area, so engineers can drive development vehicles short distances and do calibration work. Ten hoists are being moved here from Farmington Hills to enable on-vehicle hardware modifications.

The consolidation will boost Bosch’s engineering capability, while finding clever ways to save money.

For instance, engineers used to get their own test benches for component work. At the new facility, engineers are sharing them, cutting down dramatically on purchases of test equipment and computers.

The Plymouth facility coordinates its operations with design and development facilities in other customer locations such as Germany, China, Japan, India and Australia. Frasier describes the structure as “global capabilities through regional competence.”

But Frasier must do more than lead product development. He also reports directly to the Bosch parent in Germany about the automotive-electronics business in the U.S. Although volumes are down, he sees “glimmers of hope” in an otherwise depressed automotive market.

“Our automotive electronics business has been consistently growing,” Frasier says. “We’re a key element to the Bosch overall automotive structure, with clear profitability targets and responsibility for profit and loss.”

Frasier declines to disclose specifics with regard to the profitability of Bosch’s North American electronics business, as the company does not break down those figures by division.

In an increasingly global industry, discerning profitability by region is becoming extremely difficult because far-flung operations now are so intermingled.

Frasier cites a customer program for a remote keyless entry system that started production last year in North America. Bosch engineers in Michigan worked closely with the customer, while Bosch colleagues in Australia pitched in with transmitter designs.

The component is manufactured at a Bosch plant in China based on a production model created at the Bosch electronics plant in Juarez, Mexico. “What we started producing in Mexico, we’re also mirroring that in China,” Frasier says. “So we can support the Asian region from China while Mexico is producing for North America and Europe, as well.”

A year ago, Frasier would have said Bosch’s North American operations were hurting more acutely than others around the world. Europe didn’t begin to suffer until second-half 2008.

“Now, I think it’s hit all the regions,” Frasier says of the downturn. “We’re all challenged right now with how our customers are unfortunately not producing vehicles. We’re also not producing components.”

But he sees reasons for optimism. “We still see growth in the Asian market, in China,” he says of the electronics sector. “It’s not the large growth we projected the beginning of last year, but we still see growth.”

In North America, Frasier tries to stay upbeat as the U.S. government intervenes to stimulate the economy.

“The right steps are being made to shore up the financial institutions and the credit market,” he says. “It will take some time before it starts to deploy and really start affecting the industry.”

Meanwhile, the Plymouth campus, soon to employ 700, is planned eventually to accommodate up to 3,000. Frasier will know the recession is over when hiring those additional people appears more tenable.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com