MOBILE, Alabama – With aerospace executives in Alabama for an industry conference, the state’s top economic developers are moving forward with plans to target the Airbus supply chain and pursue projects that involve advanced materials and additive manufacturing, also called 3-D printing.
Alabama Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield said expanding the state’s already robust aerospace/aviation sector is a top priority as the Airbus A320 family Final Assembly Line comes closer to completion at Mobile Aeroplex. The $600 million project will make Alabama a major center of passenger jet production in North America.
“With Airbus building its first U.S.-based production facility in Mobile, the entire state is poised for growth,” Governor Robert Bentley said. “Suppliers can benefit from the same positive business climate that helped us attract Airbus. We’re ready to work with companies and partner with them to bring even more jobs to Alabama.”
The Alabama Department of Commerce is a sponsor of the two-day SpeedNews Aerospace Manufacturing Conference at Mobile’s Battle House Renaissance Hotel & Spa, which concludes today with a tour of Mobile Aeroplex and other area aerospace facilities. More than 225 companies and organizations registered for the event, according to Joanna Speed, managing director of events for SpeedNews. (Read a Q&A with Speed.)
“One of our goals is to foster relationships in the aerospace industry so that we can add new capabilities in this sector through partnerships with companies looking to expand their operations,” Canfield said. “Alabama has shown that its has the skilled workforce, the best training programs and the right pro-business policies to help aerospace companies from Airbus to Boeing find success.”
The conference was designed to bring together elements of the Airbus supply chain with officials from across the Southeast. Alabama launched an effort to recruit Airbus suppliers and service providers immediately after the aviation giant announced plans in July 2012 for its Mobile facility.
AIRBUS SUPPLY CHAIN
Canfield said Alabama offers many advantages as a U.S. homebase for the Airbus supply chain. Mobile Aeroplex, for instance, boasts the logistical advantages that attracted Airbus in the first place, including one airfield with a 9,600-foot runway and another stretching 7,800 feet. The site is adjacent to the Port of Mobile and just minutes from two major interstates and railroad connections.
Bob Smith, the Department of Commerce’s assistant director of business development and point man on aerospace, said Alabama also offers a low-cost business environment and the top-rated AIDT workforce training program. Plus, the Alabama Aviation Center (AAC), which has several locations in the state, produces certified aircraft mechanics. (Both AIDT and AAC have centers at Mobile Aeroplex.)
Smith said Alabama’s heritage in aerospace demonstrates the state’s abilities in the sector.
“With Marshall Space Flight Center and Redstone Arsenal, we are involved in some of the most high tech aerospace in the world,” Smith said.
Canfield said Alabama’s strategy to expand its aerospace sector includes a focus on advanced materials and additive manufacturing, two trends that are reshaping the industry.
Aerospace companies increasingly are turning to advanced composite materials and specialized alloys as a way to make their components lighter and stronger, which reduces costs. GKN Aerospace, which has a plant in Tallassee with nearly 1,000 workers, already produces aerostructures for industry partners using composite materials.
In addition, Hexcel’s Decatur plant produces a precursor material that is converted into carbon fiber used in commercial and military aircraft, rocket engines, satellites and more. And Toray Carbon Fibers Inc.’s plant in Decatur has the largest production capacity of any facility of its kind in the world.
Specialized alloys also are replacing metal parts in aircraft. Earlier this year, Carpenter Technologies opened a $518 million plant in Limestone County that produces premium metals for customers in the aerospace and energy industries. Carpenter is now building a $20 million plant nearby to produce superalloy powder that will be used in Pratt & Whitney aircraft engines to increase fuel efficiency.
“We are very interested in advanced materials and capitalizing on the opportunities the field presents in aerospace applications,” Smith said.
Additive manufacturing – or 3-D printing – is seen as the next major technological development that will shake up the aerospace industry. Additive manufacturing involves the “printing” of 3-D metallic parts, which are built up layer by layer from a powdered material. The process is very efficient and allows for exceptionally high levels of design flexibility.
Aerospace companies are interested in the process because it can also reduce the weight of parts used in airplane and rocket engines, as well as other important components.
NASA is already performing additive manufacturing work in Alabama. Last year, Marshall Space Flight Center tested NASA’s largest 3-D printed rocket engine component, which generated 20,000 pounds of thrust. The injector, made through an additive process, had only two parts, compared to similar components with 115.
As companies rush to adopt 3-D printing processes, Alabama’s economic developers have set a goal of capitalizing on both manufacturing and research opportunities.
“Alabama’s aerospace sector is home to many sophisticated companies that are at the cutting edge of technological advancement,” Canfield said. “The state has become a growing aerospace hub, with companies investing $4 billion in Alabama aerospace projects in the past decade alone, creating 30,000 jobs.”