Where are the great aviation clusters in the United States? Seattle? Wichita? Los Angeles? Yes, all of the above, and in Charlotte? Where?
Charlotte USA, an economic development organization representing 16 counties in both North and South Carolina, is here at the Farnborough International Airshow (Hall 2 Stand B23) to convince the world that it has the right ingredients to make it a hotbed of aerospace enterprise.
“If you look at the changing location of aerospace, particularly major production facilities, our site is centrally located,” David Swenson, senior vice president of the Charlotte Regional Partnership, told AIN. “Within the growing southeast [U.S.] marketplace…major companies like Boeing, Hondajet, Spirit Aerosystems, Gulfstream, Embraer…need a central point to the marketplace. When you look at the cluster of them and where their supplier base is, that’s Charlotte USA.”
In Boeing’s case, the state of South Carolina’s so-called “right-to-work” union-busting laws [also on the statute books in North Carolina] were undoubtedly a factor. The airframer made little secret of its desire to shake off the shackles of trade union power in its home state of Washington. Its decision to open a production line for the 787 Dreamliner in Charleston, South Carolina, prompted a legal challenge and political row, but just a couple of months ago Boeing rolled out the first of the new widebodies to be produced on the East Coast.
In 2002, the region began casting its eye on industries to target for development. With a history of machine building for the automotive and textile industries, the region–which is also the de facto home to America’s motor sports sector–had a workforce that could easily be adapted for the aerospace sector, according to Chris Platé, executive director of economic development and aviation for the North Carolina city of Monroe, which is part of Charlotte USA.
“That precision machine that is required in aerospace was almost in the DNA of the labor force that we have here, so it was an easy transition.” Platé told AIN that the area wanted to attract a sector of manufacturing that would not necessarily be “off-shored” so easily because of the intellectual property associated with the defense and security nature of the aerospace industry.
Since then, Monroe, one of the industrial powerhouses in the region, has attracted more than $600 million in investment by aerospace companies concentrated in a seven-mile radius. Those 16 companies are involved in areas ranging from component manufacturing to metal alloy production to recycling and account for nearly 3,000 employees, or more than one out of every four members of the city’s industrial workforce. For the entire Charlotte USA region, the totals swell to more than 100 companies engaged in aerospace activities, accounting for nearly 20,000 jobs.
Those firms range from the well-known such as Goodrich, Safran subsidiary Turbomeca, Michelin and BAE Systems; to the lesser known, such as titanium and exotic alloy processing specialist ATI Allvac, military aircraft seat supplier Oro Manufacturing, and even Cyril Bath, a French machine manufacturer that is now a direct supplier to Boeing, producing the titanium ribs for the 787.
On June 13, United Technologies announced its decision to headquarter its Aerospace Systems division in Charlotte, following the completion of its acquisition of Goodrich, which is already based in the North Carolina city. The move is expected to create 325 new jobs.
The economic development agency seeks not only to attract the investment of new companies and the addition of employees to the region, but works to actively aid existing local companies in transitioning into the aerospace industry. One such firm is GM Nameplate. “Most people wouldn’t recognize that name, but they are a huge player on Boeing aircraft,” said Platé. The company had a plant in Monroe that formerly supplied badging for the automotive and other industries. With the urging and assistance of the Monroe economic development board, the company struck a deal with Boeing to redirect the facility to aerospace production. It now provides virtually all signs, labels and badges in the 787 cabin.
Another area in which the aerospace industry receives support from the region is in training. Local universities and community colleges have partnered with the regional association to tailor study programs to meet industry worker needs.
Charlotte USA representatives have arrived at Farnborough equipped with a “wish list” of other aerospace industries they are looking to attract to the region to further improve the diversity of its aerospace offerings, based on discussions with its member companies. Among them are metal treatment, machining, avionics and fastener manufacturing firms.