Onlookers stood a few feet away from a small fountain of sparks as a robotic arm more than twice the size of an average man blasted hundreds of welds onto a truck body panel at Navistar International’s massive San Antonio factory.

As the arm worked, a handful of technicians stood behind fencing nearby. They were just there to make sure the robots were functioning properly.

With the weld job done, the large commercial-truck body was moved through a tunnel to the paint shop.

Throughout the production cycle, thousands of sensors placed throughout the factory fed data to one another — and their human overseers — to make sure the truck was built just right.

Heavy-duty truck maker Navistar on Wednesday unveiled its gleaming $250 million, 900,000-square-ft. factory near Mitchell Lake on the South Side. The plant offers a peek into high-tech manufacturing, where constant flows of data allow Navistar to detect errors on the assembly line in real-time and even predict problems before they happen.

“Everything today is about data,” said Mark Hernandez, head of manufacturing and logistics at Navistar. “Now, the actual computer can tell us, ‘Hey, you might want to go check this truck — because it’s coming through the station and there’s a 98 percent risk that there’s going to be a defect.’”

Illinois-based Navistar builds International-brand commercial trucks and engines and IC Bus-branded school buses. It’s producing diesel and electric trucks in San Antonio.

The manufacturer sees its South Side plant as a facility that could one day produce the next generation of zero-emission and self-driving trucks. Shortly after it broke ground on the factory in 2020, Navistar bought a nearby facility for $25 million to test and validate nascent technology, such as autonomous driving systems or hydrogen fuel cells to power trucks.

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If Navistar starts producing autonomous or hydrogen-fueled trucks, Hernandez said, it will build them in San Antonio “because of the proximity to the advanced technology center, where they can do the testing.”

About 500 people are currently working at the South Side factory. It will eventually employ more than 600.

The factory is designed to pump out 52 trucks each shift. For now, though, Navistar is building a couple of trucks each day as the company trains its new employees on assembly.

“I’ve got 500 people who have never built a truck before,” said Rod Spencer, the plant’s director. “We’re taking our time ramping up.”

Navistar was acquired for $3.7 billion last summer by Traton Group, a truck and bus subsidiary of Volkawagen. The purchase gave Traton entry into the North American truck market.

In the second half of last year, after it was acquired, Navistar generated $41 million in profit on $3.6 billion in revenue. From July through December it produced over 30,000 vehicles — about 25,000 trucks, and 5,000 buses.

Navistar ended 2021 with a backlog of orders for 22 electric trucks and 122 electric school buses.

The Navistar plant’s opening comes as the region’s automotive manufacturing industry has notched several wins in recent years.

Navistar employees mill about a nearly completed truck as the company holds a ribbon cutting ceremony with local government officials at its new factory on the South Side. The million square-foot facility is expected to produce heavy duty commercial trucks at a rate of 110 vehicles rolling off the line per day. The plant is equipped to produce diesel engine and fully electric vehicles according to Navistar officials.

Navistar employees mill about a nearly completed truck as the company holds a ribbon cutting ceremony with local government officials at its new factory on the South Side. The million square-foot facility is expected to produce heavy duty commercial trucks at a rate of 110 vehicles rolling off the line per day. The plant is equipped to produce diesel engine and fully electric vehicles according to Navistar officials.

Kin Man Hui, San Antonio Express-News / Staff photographer

Toyota recently completed a $391 million expansion at its South Side factory, located west of the Navistar site. This summer, the Japanese automaker will begin producing the Sequoia SUV alongside the Tundra pickupat the facility.

Meanwhile, Tesla has been building Model Y vehicles at its $1.1 billion “gigafactory” outside Austin since last last year. And earlier this year, DeLorean Motor Reimagined announced it would establish its headquarters here as it seeks to produce an electric version of the iconic gull-winged coupe.

As of January, San Antonio’s manufacturers employed 52,000 people, representing about 5 percent of the city’s total employment. Over the last year, the industry has added over 1,500 jobs in the San Antonio metro area, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

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