Alabama targets Airbus supply chain

Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield

Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield

Staff Report
Published April 23, 2014

MOBILE, Ala. — Alabama’s top economic developers are laying plans to target the Airbus supply chain and pursue projects involving advanced materials and additive manufacturing, also known as 3-D printing.

Expanding the state’s aerospace/aviation sector is a top priority as the $600 million Airbus final assembly facility for the A320 family of commercial airliners at Mobile Aeroplex edges closer to completion, said Alabama Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield.

Earlier this month, the state Commerce Department hosted a two-day conference in Mobile that drew more than 225 companies and organizations. 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.

“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’s advantages as a U.S. homebase for the Airbus supply chain include two runways at the Aeroplex — one stretching 9,600 feet and the other 7,800 feet, Canfield said. He added that the site is adjacent to the Port of Mobile, minutes from interstates I-10 and I-65 and served by CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads.

A rendering of an Airbus A320 with Spirit Airlines’ logo offers a look at the models that will be produced at the European aerospace company’s new facility in Mobile, Ala. (Photo Provided by Airbus)
A rendering of an Airbus A320 with Spirit Airlines’ logo offers a look at the models that will be produced at the European aerospace company’s new facility in Mobile, Ala. (Photo Provided by Airbus)

Bob Smith, the Commerce Department’s assistant director of business development and point man on aerospace, also touted the state’s aerospace heritage.

“With Marshall Space Flight Center and Redstone Arsenal, we are involved in some of the most high tech aerospace in the world,” Smith said.

Alabama’s strategy is focusing on advanced materials and additive manufacturing because aerospace companies increasingly are turning to advanced composite materials and specialized alloys as a way to make their components lighter and stronger.

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 plant in Decatur produces a precursor material that is converted into carbon fiber used in commercial and military aircraft, rocket engines, satellites and more. 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 super-alloy powder to be used in Pratt & Whitney aircraft engines to increase fuel efficiency.

Additive manufacturing — or 3-D printing — is seen as the next major technological development. Additive manufacturing involves the “printing” of 3-D metallic parts, which are built up layer by layer from a powdered material.

Aerospace companies are interested in the process because it can reduce the weight of parts used in airplane and rocket engines, as well as other components.

“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.”

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