Atlantic Aero finds a strong market in manufacturing

 - June 23, 2010, 5:54 AM
Atlantic Aero of Greensboro, N.C., bought its first CNC milling machine when HondaJet asked the company to build parts for its proof-of-concept aircraft, which it began doing in 2001. Now Atlantic Aero has seven CNC machines and makes parts for several business aircraft manufacturers.

Identifying strengths and spinning them off into new profit centers is one of the key elements of corporate growth, and that is precisely what Jim Spinder has done at Atlantic Aero, where he is president and COO.

Atlantic Aero was formed in 1971 when Greensboro, N.C. investors recognized that Piedmont Triad International Airport needed a fixed-base operator. In early 1980 the company responded to what management perceived as a need to offer advanced-technology solutions for aircraft that continued to be designed and built with 1950s technology. An engineering team was assembled to focus on the design and development of advanced supplemental type certificates (STC) and parts manufacturing approvals (PMA).

In 1997 the FAA granted designated alteration station (DAS) status to the MRO. “It was insightful because, with a few exceptions, a DAS rating typically had been the purview of major OEMs,” Spinder told AIN. “The focus of the engineering and manufacturing group was to come up with STCs that made our maintenance personnel more productive while holding down costs.”

As Atlantic Aero developed STCs and PMAs for Challengers, Falcons, Hawkers, Learjets, Citations, King Airs, Caravans and other turboprop and single-engine aircraft, it was being scrutinized from across the Pacific.

“The turning point for our manufacturing division happened when the executives from HondaJet approached us with a proposal,” Spinder said. “They asked us to work on the HondaJet proof-of-concept aircraft.”

Spinder said initially Atlantic Aero planned to outsource the machining work but after analysis decided to purchase a CNC milling machine and hire experienced machinists to do it in-house.

“It occurred to us that it would be a good addition to the division and move us into a new revenue stream,” he said. Atlantic Aero began manufacturing parts for the HondaJet project in 2001.

“We hired a couple of experienced machinists and it didn’t take them long to get really good at what they were doing. Suddenly we found we could meet the needs of the HondaJet project, have sufficient capacity to work on our own STC development and offer our services to other OEMs,” Spinder said. “It was at that point we got a contract from Bombardier, and that really kick-started us. We’d been working out of a 5,000-sq-ft facility but by 2004 we had outgrown it so we moved to a 14,000-sq-ft facility about 14 miles from the airport.” 

Increased capacity was quickly followed by increased business. The company also expanded its own STC and PMA development of parts to be used in-house. As a result, it had even greater control over its maintenance and manufacturing divisions.

“Things really began to pick up a lot more than we’d anticipated, but winning a contract to build cabinets for a major business jet OEM immediately resulted in the need for more space; our 14,000-sq-ft facility was too small,” Spinder said. In the summer of 2008 the entire operation moved into a 30,000-sq-ft facility in the same industrial park.

“When we left the 14,000-sq-ft facility we had three CNCs and six employees. In the 18 months since the move we’ve expanded to seven CNCs and 21 employees. In the fall of 2008 we shipped our first cabinet ship set for the contract and the 51st ship set just went out the door to the OEM.

“We’re now making parts for several major business aircraft OEMs. That has led to yet another segment of the market opening up to us. We’re also manufacturing parts for component repair and overhaul shops, which brings us into another new segment of the market,” Spinder said. “This has turned into a very significant business line for us.”