One of the ways Airbus is putting down roots in Alabama is through partnerships with local universities that aim to help shape the next generation of industry leaders.
The aerospace giant has donated large airplane components to engineering departments at the University of South Alabama and Auburn University for students and faculty members to use in their studies.
Airbus, which delivered the first A321 passenger jet made at its Mobile manufacturing plant to customer JetBlue in April, also is working with a researcher from USA who is exploring new uses for the composite materials used in aircraft construction.
In separate endeavors, Airbus Engineering is involved with USA in establishing an Innovation Hub in Mobile, as well as a relationship through an Airbus Group University Partners Program at the University of Alabama, Kristi Tucker, director of communications for Airbus Americas Inc. said recently.
Meanwhile, Airbus Manufacturing has UA supporting its Employee Health and Safety deployment, while USA is supporting the company with interns for a couple of manufacturing improvement projects.
Several other efforts are under consideration as well, Tucker said earlier this year.
“Whether it’s a donation of a part, or educational partnership, we feel that we are investing in the industry’s future,” she said. “By giving students the ability to have hands-on experiences with new materials found in aviation (i.e., the parts donations), or real world experience via projects or internships, we are helping to create aviation leaders of tomorrow.”
At Auburn, Airbus’ donation of an elevator, a tail section of its A330 twin-engine jet airliner, is being used as a valuable teaching tool, said Joe Majdalani, chair of the university’s Department of Aerospace Engineering.
The part, valued at $750,000, allows students to reverse engineer and study the various components of a finished aircraft wing. It is part of the department’s structures lab.
“We can show students what a real wing looks like,” Majdalani said. “They can dissect it, and do strength tests on it. It is being analyzed by students who are working on their understanding of composites and how they can be used in different aircraft applications.”
Auburn’s engineering program has produced many industry leaders, he added. The elevator is not just a tool for analysis; it also helps with recruitment.
“It does attract students, to see there is an actual airplane wing. They can touch it, analyze it and see how the pieces are joined together,” he said.
EXPLORING NEW TECHNOLOGY
Airbus also donated an elevator to USA, where it is being used in conjunction with a research project led by Kuang-Ting Hsiao, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
Hsiao’s study is focused on carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) composites, which are increasingly used in new airplanes and some modifications on current airplane models. As a result, the aerospace industry worldwide has a strong motivation to explore more uses of CFRP.
The composite materials group led by Hsiao at USA has been funded by federal agencies like NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the state of Alabama in the past and has world-leading innovative research capabilities into new CFRP composites. Last year, Hsiao’s team received a $250,000 award from the Alabama Innovation Fund, a program that supports promising research and new ventures.
Hsiao and the group are collaborating with Airbus on exploring the potential of niche CFRP technologies.
“Airbus, as a global leader in the aerospace industry, is definitely a great partner to help us in aligning and renewing our research vision and effort toward the innovative research in composite materials. And Mobile provides a great environment and location to grow this collaboration,” Hsiao said.
USA has a wide-ranging relationship with Airbus, thanks to the proximity of its Mobile Aeroplex engineering center and the nearby aircraft assembly plant, said Lynne Chronister, the institution’s vice president for research and economic development.
“They really have impacted the academic portion of the university, and it’s been a wonderful relationship,” she said.
Airbus engineers and executives have given guest lectures at the school, and the company has hired students as interns in engineering, computing and other areas.
“We think it’s important that our students have the opportunity to be involved in real-life engineering and other internships before they go into the business world,” Chronister said. “Many of those students, they end up hiring.”
USA students also have participated in, and won, a national innovation contest put on by Airbus.
The fact that Airbus is an international company also provides benefits, Chronister said, as students and researchers interact with people from all over the world.
Michael Chambers, USA’s assistant vice president for research innovation and a former chairman of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, said the Mobile community has provided benefits for Airbus, too.
The region’s diverse economy includes aviation and energy sectors, a chemical corridor, shipbuilding operations and the only deep-water port in the state.
“We have a lot to offer Airbus,” he said. “In return for their tremendous investment, it’s given us a great opportunity to give back to them. So it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.”