Boeing, Airbus: ‘Two big fish’ in a Southern sea

Visitors to the 2012 Farnborough Airshow in England earlier this month toured the Airbus A380 demonstrator aircraft. (Photo/Airbus)
Visitors to the 2012 Farnborough Airshow in England earlier this month toured the Airbus A380 demonstrator aircraft. (Photo/Airbus)
By Chuck Crumbo
Published July 18, 2012

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Airbus’ decision to join chief competitor Boeing and build commercial airliners in the Southeast likely means more growth and opportunities for the region’s aerospace suppliers.

The world’s largest airplane companies already share a large number of suppliers who build the various components that go into the manufacturing of a passenger jet.

Aerospace companies in South Carolina and the Southeast “will definitely benefit from having the new Airbus plant in Mobile, Ala., and Boeing‘s production facility in Charleston, S.C.,” said Sherry Pittinger, of the Clemson Regional Small Business Development Center.

Some suppliers already serve Airbus’ other models and now are looking for opportunities to work on the A320, the France-based plane maker’s single-aisle passenger plane, Pittinger said.

“Suppliers are all over the world, but if they can cut their transportation costs down by setting up shop here, they could save a lot, and they could be more responsive to their ultimate client,” said Scott Mason, the Fluor Endowed Chair in Supply Chain and Logistics in Clemson’s industrial engineering department. “It’s potentially a big win for them.”

Aware of what Airbus’ announcement means to the state’s aerospace industry, Gov. Nikki Haley and her delegation made it a point to meet with executives of suppliers at last week’s International Air Show in Farnborough, England.

The governor said S.C. officials had about 50 meetings with companies that have facilities in South Carolina as well as others that might be considering expanding to the Palmetto State.

The governor sees parallels in the emergence of the region’s aerospace industry and the automotive industry.

She noted that after South Carolina landed BMW in 1992, Alabama followed a year later when Daimler AG announced plans to build a Mercedes Benz assembly plant in Tuscaloosa County.

In April, Boeing rolled the first 787 Dreamliner to be built in South Carolina out of its 1.2 million-square-foot final assembly plant in North Charleston. Less than three months later, Airbus announced plans to build an assembly plant in Mobile, Ala.

“What we saw was the automotive industry grow tremendously,” Haley said. “What everybody sees now is if they come to South Carolina, they can service both” Boeing and Airbus.

Haley said the 180 aerospace-related businesses in South Carolina employ 20,000 people. Last year, the industry invested more than $100 million in the state and created about 900 new jobs.

“There’s a lot of buzz about that and South Carolina is already getting top grades for being business-friendly. Boeing is raving about us, and that’s done nothing but help.”

One supplier to both Boeing and Airbus is GE Aviation, which produces high-pressure turbine blades at its Greenville, S.C., facility for commercial aircraft engines. The company employs 200 people in Greenville.

Airbus’ decision to locate in Alabama does not change GE’s production projections, a spokeswoman said. In 2011, GE produced 3,200 engines.

“But, we are experiencing record-high production levels for our business — producing 3,400 engines this year which increases to 3,600 in 2013.”

Current suppliers to Boeing, such as Adex Machining Technologies in Greenville, are in the process of becoming a qualified supplier to Airbus, Pittinger said.

Carbures USA Inc., which recently located its U.S. operations facility in Greenville to support Boeing’s North Charleston production, could be another supplier to Airbus’ Alabama plant. Carbures’ operations in Europe support several Airbus models and the company plans to explore opportunities with Airbus in Mobile, Pittinger added.

“The real opportunities with having Airbus in Mobile, Ala., and Boeing in South Carolina will be at the tier 2 and tier 3 levels,” Pittinger said. As tier 1 suppliers to Boeing and Airbus relocate to the Southeast, it will increase the demand for additional suppliers, she said.

“With the accessibility of various interstate routes, these suppliers will be able to provide local shipping support, which saves time and money,” Pittinger said.

Companies that would consider expansion to South Carolina and the region will have to determine if there’ll be enough volume of work to justify the move, Mason said.

“It’s not just one big fish in the ocean, but potentially two big fish,” Mason said.

Chances are there could be plenty of work. Boeing and Airbus have an order backlog of more than 8,000 airliners, enough work to keep them busy for nearly a decade without ever having to sell another jet.

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