Hawker Beechcraft opens shop in Mexico

 - November 28, 2007, 5:11 AM

Hawker Beechcraft opened its new sheet metal assembly facility in Chihuahua, Mexico. According to the Wichita-based airframer, the new light metal shop will support the company’s current and projected workforce needs and alleviate space constraints at its U.S. manufacturing facilities. Current plans for the operation call for an initial staff of 250 workers with a growth potential of up to 650 over the next five years.

The company is the latest to join a rapidly growing aerospace industry enclave in Chihuahua. “The city government was working hard to create an aerospace cluster, and as we looked at a lot of other locations we came away from our meetings with the Chihuahua government with high confidence that they were going to succeed in attracting other aerospace industry and creating an infrastructure that would support a complex industry like aerospace,” said Bill Patterson, Hawker Beechcraft director of strategic initiatives.

One of the key reasons Hawker Beechcraft–and others–selected the region is the presence of the High Technology Training Center Campus Chihuahua, a government- and industry-sponsored grass roots school that trains and certifies specialized technicians in skills that include machining, sheet metal working and painting.

While there are other such schools in Mexico, the Chihuahua campus is oriented specifically toward the aerospace industry. “We worked closely with them to create a training program for sheet metal assemblers,” said Patterson. “They put that operation in, and we’ve successfully gotten employees out of that training program.”

Other industry mainstays have also gotten involved with the training process, according to Bill Saathoff, Hawker Beechcraft’s Mexico program manager. “It was actually a collaborative effort among us, Cessna and WATC [the Wichita Area Technical College], to put together a curriculum that mirrored what we needed for this phase of the program. [Hawker Beechcraft’s Chihuahua facility] graduated more than 30 people, and I know Cessna’s done even more than that at this point. It’s a good school. Other aerospace companies in the area are using them as well for other skills, such as Honeywell, which is putting several hundred people through that class for machining,” he said. Bombardier, Gulfstream and Goodrich also have a presence in the region.

While some might decry the fact that this move will create jobs outside the U.S., Patterson believes the choice was a necessity for Hawker Beechcraft. “We’ve hired more than 1,000 people this year just to fill our work force and we have open job [requisitions] right now. To meet our customers’ needs and deliver the products that we’ve got to produce right now, we need more resources.”

The plant opening in Chihuahua could provide a blueprint for how the aerospace industry must evolve, according to Patterson. “I think the world is shrinking, as we look at our sales. For a while [we’ve been] selling more aircraft overseas, and the industries globally are getting more competitive, not just at the airframer level but at the infrastructure level. To deliver new products to market in a timely fashion and continue to satisfy the competitive needs, companies need to partner more and more to take advantage of the better skills around the world, and we see that model playing out in the [airliner] industry as well as the general aviation industry,” he said.