Honda will invest $124 million to build a high-tech wind tunnel in East Liberty, the first time the company has invested in a full-scale facility of its kind in the U.S.
Construction of the facility will begin this spring and it will be housed at the Transportation Research Center, a 4,500-acre site that provides research and development, crash testing and other functions. The tunnel will be able to produce wind speeds of up to 192 miles per hour.
Honda is a major employer in the region and across the state. About 1,400 workers from Clark and Champaign counties work for the automaker, and it employs about 13,000 Ohioans overall.
“The investment further strengthens Honda and Acura’s product development in North America and at the same time will bolster TRC’s reputation as a world-class multi-user testing facility,” said Chris Abbruzzese, a spokesman for the manufacturer.
The project is still in the early stages so it’s not clear what impact, if any, the project will have on job creation, he said. The wind tunnel will likely be operational by summer 2020.
“It will further enhance the development of Honda and Acura passenger cars and light trucks, while also providing the opportunity to immediately test the data and information we collect in a real-world environment at the proving grounds at the Transportation Research Center, which is adjacent to our North American research and development facilities,” Abbruzzese said.
The moves makes sense for Honda because much of the company’s research and development infrastructure is based in Ohio, said Stephanie Brinley, an auto analyst for IHS Markit. The company has a wind tunnel in Japan but she said opening one in the U.S. would give the manufacturer more flexibility.
“It’s continued to give the North America region more responsibility for product development,” Brinley said. “This would suggest that’s going to continue.”
The wind tunnel will use an interchangeable belt system capable of testing both production vehicles and race cars, according to information from Honda. Among other design issues, the site will allow Honda to develop new ways to reduce wind noise in its vehicles during development by using a system of microphones and cameras to measure potential noise issues on both the interior and exterior of the vehicles.
“The wind tunnel really comes in when you’re designing the vehicle, and when you’re tweaking a face-lift and when you’re changing the exterior of a vehicle,” Brinley said. “
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The site will also provide enough space for four customer bays, allowing other businesses to use the facility.
“It’s an important investment for Honda’s capabilities but it’s not an unusual investment for an automaker to do,” Brinley said.
Honda purchased the Transportation Research Center, where the wind tunnel will be built, for $31 million in 1988. It’s managed by TRC Inc., a nonprofit affiliated with Ohio State University. Surplus funds from operating the facility are used to support endowments at Ohio State’s College of Engineering.
“While Honda owns the land and is the landlord, TRC is an independent proving ground with Honda as a major customer,” University Engineering Dean David Williams said.
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Ohio State will hire faculty who are experts in design and other specialties as the project nears completion. The university also conducts similar research for the aerospace industry, he said.
The university is also growing with more demand from engineering students, Williams said, and will grow by about 70 faculty members over the next five years in areas like automotive, aerospace and manufacturing.
“We will have faculty, staff and students who are working with Honda researchers at the wind tunnel,” Williams said. “We’ll be building that up over the next couple of years as the construction takes place.”
The TRC is the nation’s largest independent automotive proving grounds, according to information from the company. The site has about 475 employees and about 1,000 customers.
“We’ll have faculty, staff and students ready to go and continue working with Honda researchers, as we do in many other areas,” Williams said.
The research center’s proximity to Honda’s North American research and development facilities is also expected to provide benefits to the company.
“This is really going to add increased efficiency to our development process, which is a tremendous advantage for us and for our customers,” Abbruzzese said. “It’s really going to be a unique facility in that respect.”