DETROIT – GKN Driveline gained 1,500 employees and manufacturing and engineering operations around the world with the $440 million acquisition last fall of Getrag’s driveline business.

Several months later, the additional capacity and staffing is coming in handy as the transaxle and all-wheel-drive system supplier faces a good kind of problem: strong demand from auto makers.

“I think, like most people, we’ve seen that business is really, really, really good right now,” Ray Kuczera, vice president-engineering GKN Driveline Americas, tells journalists here during Autocom Associates’ Tech Crawl. “It seems every automotive factory is going full-speed ahead eight days a week.”

To illustrate the point, Kuczera refers to the plant in Newton, NC, which came under GKN Driveline’s umbrella last year as part of the Getrag deal. The facility opened in 1986 and was expanded in 1989 and 2001. A second plant opened in 2008, and today the complex is running at full capacity with about 600 employees, producing axles and power-takeoff units.

At the current pace of growth, further expansion in Newton will be necessary within two years, Kuczera tells WardsAuto. One option is to consider adding capacity at another factory. But the likely location, in Bowling Green, OH, already is being expanded to produce additional open differentials and the capacity nearly is spoken for, he says.

“With our current growth, we should be full very soon,” Kuczera says. The primary customer for the Newton plant is General Motors, but Ford also now is receiving PTUs for the all-new Escape.

Growth is not limited to the manufacturing side of the business. At the North American technical center in Auburn Hills, MI, GKN Driveline has 140 engineers and needs another 20 to 25 within the next two years, he says.

The company will be looking for mechanical and electrical engineers with experience in controls to work on next-generation driveline systems.

Kuczera says it is “extremely difficult finding engineers right now,” including both recent graduates and those with automotive experience. The shortage will become more acute in the coming years as schools graduate more engineers.

“People entered college when the auto industry was very poor, and people didn’t want to become (automotive) engineers,” he says. “Now, all of a sudden, we’re at the end of the 4-year cycle. Demand has picked back up, but there’s actually few engineers graduating.”

Like other suppliers, GKN downsized during the recession. “But we’ve since grown far beyond where we were in 2008,” Kuczera says. “Excluding the (Getrag) acquisition, we’re still higher in headcount than we were before that.”

After the acquisition, the new GKN Driveline has 22,000 employees and $4.9 billion in annual revenue. The deal made sense because the two companies had very little overlap or duplication, offsetting the need for consolidation or downsizing, Kuczera says.

AWD represents the lion’s share of the growth for GKN. For many years, 4-wheel drive was associated primarily with pickup trucks and SUVs.

But today, front-wheel-drive cars, cross/utility vehicles and minivans can be converted easily to AWD, thanks to PTUs, a core component for the supplier. And AWD also is booming in the rear-drive luxury-car segment.

AWD systems are fertile ground for reducing friction and parasitic losses in the driveline in a bid to boost fuel efficiency. Kuczera refers to one new technology as “disconnecting AWD,” which turns off the system at highway speeds when it is not necessary and can improve fuel economy some 1 mpg (0.4 km/L).

With the Getrag acquisition, Kuczera sees the new GKN Driveline as ideally suited to serve as a one-stop shop for the entire driveline, from the transmission differential to prop-shafts, half-shafts and wheel ends.

He says this new competency allows GKN Driveline to move more quickly on breakthrough technologies such as torque vectoring, which uses advanced electronics to transfer torque from side to side to improve handling in dynamic driving situations.

The new company also is the world’s largest supplier of transmissions for electric vehicles. Within the past five years, GKN Driveline has delivered some 250,000 EV transmissions, and a European EV will come to the U.S. late this year with a GKN transmission.

Even though the EV market has not taken off as expected, Kuczera says the company’s forecast for the sector remains cautious. “There was a lot of enthusiasm and government money pouring in here and in Europe, but there is a lot less enthusiasm now that the money dried up from the (U.S.) Department of Energy,” he says. “But we’re still investing heavily in it.”

tmurphy@wardsauto.com