Area Development
This industry makes motor vehicles, not roller coasters - but you could be forgiven if you've had trouble spotting the difference recently. The good news is that the wild ride seems to be winding down, and the automotive business appears to be accelerating back toward a smoother ride.

"We've started to see increases in sales last year and going into this year," says Kim Hill, director of the Sustainability and Economic Development Strategies Group at the Center for Automotive Research in Michigan. Vehicle sales could hit the 13 million range this year, he says, after falling to a little more than 10 million in 2009.

An annual sales figure of 13 million is still by no means stellar, considering that U.S. car and truck sales totaled about 17 million every year from 1999 through 2006, according to Ward's Automotive Group statistics. Still, says Hill, "This is a really good trend."

Ward's January 2011 sales tally is an indicator of that good trend. Overall U.S. light vehicle sales were up by more than 17 percent over the previous January. General Motors' sales grew by nearly 23 percent, and Chrysler's by nearly 24 percent. In fact, with the exception of Mazda and Isuzu, all major automakers reported a better first month of 2011 than of 2010.

Adjusting to the Uptick
Don't expect a truckload of announcements of brand-new auto assembly plants anytime soon, Hill cautions. For the most part, there's plenty of manufacturing capacity out there. "Over the last few years, a lot of facilities closed or severely curtailed their production, at some points by 50 percent," he points out. "We don't see another era of rapid expansion and building of assembly plants in the near future."

What will be most interesting to watch is what happens in the supplier sector as auto assembly ramps back up. When the chill in assembly hit, it had a major ripple effect in the supplier system. "Some were able to weather the storm, some ended up merging with other suppliers, and some suppliers simply folded up shop and went away," Hill says. Indeed, more than five dozen major suppliers hit bankruptcy in 2009. "Suppliers that are still around have found that they have become much more efficient."

The question is, after all the turmoil, can the supplier network handle the uptick in business? There are scattered reports of difficulties in this regard, causing temporary closures at Ford, Chrysler, and Volkswagen plants unable to take delivery on a sufficient flow of components to keep the assembly lines rolling. Microchips have been in short supply, and some resins, too. Most of the problems were solved relatively quickly, as suppliers adjusted and competitors moved in to grab market share.

That doesn't mean the issue won't arise again as the thaw continues. For some automotive suppliers, it's just a matter of taking production lines out of mothballs. But if an up-and-coming supplier wants to grow into the new opportunities, it might require capital that remains somewhat elusive.

On the assembly side, there is generally plenty of capacity in existing plants to handle a significant boost in demand. There may be exceptions here and there, though. For example, industry followers have heard that Hyundai may be considering adding to its North American manufacturing capacity, and similar rumors have followed Volkswagen.

Some Opportunities
Meanwhile, other manufacturers are shuffling the deck as demand shifts become clearer, and that already has spelled opportunities on the manufacturing side. Kia has been building up its operations in West Point, Georgia, for example, and there has been speculation that General Motors could at some point bring assembly back to its idled lines in Spring Hill, Tennessee.

Nissan already has sent good news Tennessee's way, announcing that it plans to move production of its Rogue crossover SUV from Japan to its plant in Smyrna within a couple of years. Smyrna also is where Nissan plans to assemble its LEAF all-electric vehicle starting next year, and it's working now on a facility there to make LEAF's lithium-ion batteries. Ford, which weathered the downturn much better than its American competitors, has said it expects its manufacturing and assembly operations will add as many as 7,000 new jobs in the next couple of years. And Toyota has driven its Tacoma manufacturing to its San Antonio assembly plant.

In the major car-building hub of Ontario, thousands of automotive jobs have been created since 2009, and manufacturing numbers in 2010 were up 43 percent over the previous year. The new year marked the production launch of three new vehicles at Chrysler's Brampton Assembly Plant. Chrysler last year pumped millions of dollars into its Etobicoke casting plant as well. In Alliston, Honda is boosting production, adding a second shift and hiring 400 people. And General Motors, fresh from its restructuring, has recalled all of its laid-off workers in Oshawa and Ingersoll and created 700 new jobs, adding a total of 2,000 to the payroll.

Alternative-Energy and Other Vehicles
There's growing activity on the new frontier of alternative-energy vehicles, with the activity often involving small operations and unfamiliar companies. In Elkhart, Indiana, for example, automaker THINK has pumped $55 million into a facility that once housed an RV supplier, and last fall began assembling electric vehicles from parts brought in from overseas. It's still a small operation, making a couple of dozen vehicles a day and employing about that many people. But it's ramping up toward full production later this year, and the company hopes to eventually have 400 people on the payroll.

An automotive company to watch, according to Fortune magazine, is Indiana-based Carbon Motors. The company hopes to take advantage of the sunset of the Crown Victoria as a popular police vehicle, and is creating its own line of cruiser that it claims is America's first "purpose-built" police car. Production on the site of an old Ford air-conditioner plant is still a couple of years away, but the company claims more than 16,000 of its E7 cop cars have already been reserved.

All in all, there are lots of reasons to feel positive about the automotive business, says Hill of the Center for Automotive Research. "Given all the bad news, we were at the bottom of the trough not that long ago," he says. Many people deferred vehicle purchases during the past few years and are getting increasingly tired of driving around clunkers. "It seems now like everything is positive," Hill says.