DECATUR, Alabama – Companies that produce carbon fiber and specialty alloys for aircraft manufacturers have invested more than $1.7 billion in their Alabama facilities, making the state a growing player in the aerospace supply chain.
Toray, the largest producer of polyacrylonitrile (PAN)-based carbon fibers, operates a Decatur plant that houses one of the world’s biggest production lines, capable of producing 8 million pounds of carbon fiber a year. The company has invested $511 million in Morgan County, where it also operates a fluorofibers facility.
Hexcel operates a plant in Decatur that makes a PAN precursor, which is converted into carbon fiber at other company plants, and houses a research and technology center for carbon fiber development. Hexcel investment in its Decatur operation will reach $691 million when an expansion announced this year is complete.
“The demand for Hexcel’s fiber is growing as the newest commercial aircraft are increasing their use of carbon composites,” Hexcel spokesman Michael Bacal said when the expansion, its third in six years, was announced. “Decatur has been very supportive of Hexcel’s growth in the past, and we look forward to being a valued, growing member of the community in the future.”
Carbon fiber composites produced by Toray and Hexcel are found in the airframes of Boeing and Airbus passenger jets, along with other uses.
“It is a little unusual for a city to have two major carbon fiber plants whose products go into the biggest and best new airplanes,” said Jeremy Nails, president and CEO of the Morgan County Economic Development Association.
In nearby Athens, Carpenter Technology Corp. operates a new $518 million facility capable of producing 27,000 tons of premium metal products annually for aircraft manufacturers and other customers. The company’s advanced alloys, powders and titanium products are found in jet engines, structural fasteners, landing gear components, exhaust casings and more.
The Carpenter Alabama operation is so massive that it required 2,750 truckloads of concrete to form the building and its foundation. The plant’s radial press, capable of exerting 4 million pounds of force, is the largest of its kind in the world. The press was moved to the facility in three parts, each weighing 160 tons.
Carpenter also is building a $20 million facility on its Limestone County campus that will produce super-alloy powders for jet-engine maker Pratt & Whitney. Super-alloy powders are used in additive manufacturing processes – often called 3-D printing — that are revolutionizing aircraft manufacturing.
The company’s connection to aviation goes back to the early 20th Century, when its specialty steels were used by the Wright Brothers in their airplanes.
POSITIONED FOR GROWTH
With aviation analysts predicting a sharp increase in aircraft manufacturing in coming years, Alabama’s aerospace-focused economic development efforts are targeting producers of raw materials and other companies throughout the supply chain.
“Alabama has developed a substantial foundation in the aviation and aerospace sector over many decades, and we want to build on that base to penetrate all levels of the industry supply chain,” said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce. “Alabama stands in the center of the emerging Southeastern aerospace cluster, and the presence of companies such as Toray, Hexcel and Carpenter show that we are prepared for an expanding role in the supply chain.”
With Airbus set to produce the first A320 Family aircraft at its new $600 million assembly line in Mobile this year, analysts say Alabama is well positioned to capitalize on industry growth. Global aircraft production, totaling 4,731 planes in 2013, is projected to rise to 6,000 planes by 2023, according to aviation consulting firm ICF SH&E.
Demand for aerospace raw materials – a market now worth $11 billion — will surge as well, with demand for composites in particular growing significantly in coming years, the firm says. Boeing and Airbus represent nearly 70 percent of the aircraft demand for these composite materials.
That’s good news for Decatur, where Toray and Hexcel employ around 500 people.
“Fortunately, we’ve seen both of the companies continue to expand over the years,” Nails said. “They are two of the major employers in Decatur, and there’s the longevity factor. I can see both of them here for the long haul because they’ve both been in a state of expansion, they pay their employees well, and they give back to the community in a way that goes beyond capital investment.”