Smithfield Herald

Caterpillar opens Clayton design center focused on new products

Gov. Pat McCrory said the new Caterpillar facility would help bring jobs to the state.
Gov. Pat McCrory said the new Caterpillar facility would help bring jobs to the state.

Caterpillar Inc. held a ribbon cutting July 26 for a design center that will help the heavy-equipment maker come up with its next generation of products.

Gov. Pat McCrory and local leaders were on hand for the dedication of the Caterpillar Machine Development Center just off of N.C. 42 East.

As a young man, McCrory said, he dug ditches and climbed poles for Duke Energy. “This is an incredible investment of jobs for North Carolina,” he said.

The 57,000-square-foot facility is a place for engineers to test new designs that could one day be incorporated into products sold around the world. According to Caterpillar, about 30 percent of the machines assembled at its Clayton and Sanford plants are exported.

Most of the roughly 200 engineers, technicians and operators who will work at the center have been hired and were on hand for the dedication. The employees won’t build machines onsite; instead, they will focus on design elements for new Caterpillar machines.

“Here we can put engineers close to iron and close to dirt,” said Doug Petterson, a Caterpillar general manager. “We can also increase our competence of our engineers to innovate.”

Petterson said engineering graduates today don’t always possess “machinery sense” because they didn’t grow up on farms or tinker with cars as teens. And sticking engineers behind a computer screen all day is not the way to get their creative juices flowing, he said.

At the Machine Development Center, engineers have 150 acres on which to test their designs. That land includes a half-mile, high-speed machine track, 10 test and demonstration areas and seven machine-operation areas to prove machine reliability and durability.

Each employee is required to spend 20 hours each year operating a machine in the test field. Engineers of all levels will be collaborating, with new hires learning from veterans in the field.

Petterson said he’s proud that Caterpillar built the machine-development center in Clayton, given that other manufacturers are doing this type of work outside the United States. “Some of my colleagues at other companies are laughing at the decision to build this facility in North Carolina,” he said.

In North Carolina, Caterpillar employs more than 2,000 people at a half-dozen locations.

Jim Hollister is a chief engineer at Caterpillar, where he has worked for 40 years.

Caterpillar’s previous design center was in Cary, and Hollister and his team would have to come to Clayton to get the raw materials they were trying to turn into machines. The nearest test facility, meanwhile, was at Caterpillar’s headquarters in Peoria, Ill.

Now everything’s in one office.

“Any day we can get up from our desks and operate the equipment we’re designing,” Hollister said.

Although Caterpillar won’t be adding many new workers at the center, the company does expect to have positions available at its nearby assembly plant in Clayton. Those positions usually require a two-year technical degree, Petterson said.