On March 31, 1990, an article in the Washington Post brought attention to the first real-world evidence that a new piece of equipment for everyday cars and trucks was, indeed, a breakthrough in automobile safety.
On March 12 of that year, a sedan and a convertible had collided head-on on a road in rural Virginia, and State Trooper Gary Dawson, the first one on the scene, fully expected he would be reporting fatalities when he got his first look at the crumpled vehicles.
“To Dawson’s surprise, however, the two drivers had climbed out and were inspecting the damage,” the Post article reads.
The article goes on to state that the accident “apparently was the first in which both cars deployed air bags.” Both drivers escaped with nothing more than bumps and bruises, even though one of them wasn’t wearing a seat belt at the time of the crash.
The incident marked a turning point in public attitude toward this new technology, which safety experts had been pushing for 20 years. It also marked a major takeoff point for a burgeoning industry, one that has come to have a huge impact on the economy of Utah and Box Elder County thanks to Autoliv Inc., the company that now reigns supreme in the global airbag production market.
Today, the two cars involved in that historic crash in rural Virginia sit in the lobby at the Autoliv’s airbag inflator plant in Brigham City, serving as a reminder to the 1,200-plus employees working there that, as Plant Manager Dave Anderson puts it, “we only get one chance to get it right.”
The Brigham City plant, where production started in 1989, is now the largest airbag inflator plant in the world. Employees at the plant had good cause for celebration on April 10, when they marked the 1 billionth inflator produced at the facility.
The 586,000-square-foot plant now has 1,220 employees — many of whom not only live in Box Elder County but commute from Cache Valley and the Ogden area — and is on track to produce nearly 70 million inflators this year. Additional Autoliv plants in Promontory and Tremonton provide the parts that make the inflators deploy.
During last week’s celebration, officials at the plant led visitors on a tour of the bustling facility. While production of the actual inflators is largely automated nowadays, there are still plenty of human eyes constantly overseeing the process to ensure every inflator that comes out is properly suited to its essential purpose of saving lives.
“We have lots of redundant checks in place to ensure we get it right 100 percent of the time,” said Jason Corbridge, a production supervisor who has worked at the Brigham City facility for 20 years.
Inflators are pyrotechnic devices that rapidly inflate airbags when a crash is detected, a process that takes less time than the blink of an eye. The Brigham City plant produces inflators for all seating positions in the vehicle, including the driver and passenger seating positions for frontal and side impact collisions, as well as all seating positions for side collisions and roll-over accidents.
The facility produces pyrotechnic inflators that rely on the rapid combustion of a propellant, as well as stored-gas inflators that rely on pressurized gas augmented with small amount of propellant. An Autoliv facility in Promontory that opened in 1987 employs about 275 people in the production of materials for the pyrotechnic inflators, and another in Tremonton, with about 365 employees, supplies the parts that make the stored-gas inflators work. The Tremonton facility started production in 1993.
Brian Jenson, project manager at the Brigham City plant, said the Promontory and Tremonton facilities make deliveries to the Brigham City plant every three hours, allowing it produce more than 1 million inflators every week.
As Anderson puts it, “without our Tremonton and Promontory facilities, we wouldn’t be leading the race.”
By “leading the race,” Anderson was referring in part to the fact that Autoliv is the largest manufacturing employer in the state of Utah, with approximately 3,600 total employees at seven facilities in four Utah locations: Brigham City (airbag inflators); Ogden (airbags, a service parts organization, injection molding, logistics warehouse and a technology center); Promontory (pyrotechnic materials); and Tremonton (airbag initiators and micro gas generators). Autoliv products can be found on more than 100 car brands across the globe.
The company’s Northern Utah operations accounted for $1.2 billion of the company’s total sales of $8.7 billion in 2018.
“By far, Autoliv dwarfs every other manufacturer in the state in terms of numbers,” said Todd Bingham, president of the Utah Manufacturers Association. “They’re a huge driver for our state’s economy.”
Autoliv is also the largest player in the airbag industry worldwide by a hefty margin, commanding 40 percent of the global market for passive automobile safety systems in 2018. The Sweden-based company has operations in 27 countries, with its North American operations accounting for 31 percent of total sales last year.
According to a report from Allied Market Research, the global airbag industry is on pace to grow 9.4% between 2016 and 2022. While the largest growth is expected to be in Asian markets, the outlook for North America is strong as well, putting Autoliv’s Northern Utah operations in a strong position.
As the market for automobile safety continues to grow and evolve, so does Autoliv, thanks in large part to a culture of continuous improvement that has defined the way the company operates from the start. In the early 1990s, leaders at Autoliv brought in a renowned expert from Toyota to teach them the principles of “kaizen,” a Japanese business philosophy centered around the ideas of operational efficiency and a refusal to settle for the status quo. The implementation of these principles helped the Brigham City facility earn the coveted Shingo Prize for Operational Excellence in 2003, and again in 2009.
The company is constantly evaluating the way it does things, looking for even the smallest ways to make a process more efficient, whether that be through improvements in technology or just common sense.
“If you come back six months from now, you won’t recognize a lot of this facility,” said Alan Ward, vice president of operations.
Dan Garceau, president of Autoliv’s North American operations, came to Brigham City to speak during last week’s celebration. He said that as some competitors have stumbled in recent years with massive recalls and other problems, Autoliv is positioned to become an even bigger player in the automobile safety industry.
With the massive recalls in recent years by Japanese competitor Takata Corp., which went bankrupt in 2017, Autoliv has been able to grow its market share by stepping in and filling orders for automakers that previously did business with Takata, Garceau said.
Moving forward, Garceau said the Brigham City plant, along with the company’s other Northern Utah facilities, will continue to play an integral role in its success.
“You guys are the calm in the storm,” he said. “You’re an inspiration to our other facilities. Going forward, we see a really strong future here.”
Garceau ended his speech with another prediction.
“I’ll see you back here at the 2 billion inflator celebration,” he said.