Alabama’s aerospace industry has already flown to the moon with the Saturn V rocket. Now, it’s ready for a new set of missions that will keep this critical sector of Alabama’s economy soaring in revolutionary ways.
With aviation and aerospace officials from around the globe gathering at next week’s Paris Air Show, it’s time to take an in-depth look at how Alabama’s role in this key sector continues to expand in an era of rapid technological advancement. A milestone, of course, is the beginning of aircraft assembly at Airbus’ new $600 million manufacturing center in Mobile.
But Airbus’ production launch this summer is just one of the significant developments under way in Alabama aerospace these days.
Check out these five trends lifting Alabama’s aerospace industry and building on a heritage in flight dates that back to when the Wright Brothers established their first civilian flight school in Montgomery more than a century ago.
Alabama is at the center of the 3-D printing revolution that promises to transform the way aerospace and aviation components are manufactured.
Additive manufacturing, as the process is more commonly known in industrial circles, is the high-tech opposite of familiar techniques that involve taking a chunk of metal and machining it down to form a part. In the additive process, parts are formed by laying down successive layers of a powdery material. Often, these 3-D printed parts are cheaper and stronger.
NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center has become a hub for the space agency’s additive manufacturing efforts. Engineers at the Huntsville facility this year 3-D printed a copper rocket part, while testing the limits of the technology in rocket engines.
Huntsville-based Dynetics and partner Aerojet Rocketdyne, meanwhile, are using additive manufacturing and other advances in an attempt to design, fabricate and test a new, cost-efficient U.S.-made rocket engine that is based on the famous F-1 engine that powered the Saturn V.
In Auburn, GE Aviation is making progress on a project that will see the company’s Alabama facility become the first to mass produce a part for jet propulsion system using additive manufacturing.
Alabama is playing a key role in ushering in a new age for aviation – the day of the drone. They’re more properly called unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or unmanned aerial systems (UAV), but whatever you call them, these craft are poised to make a splash with many commercial uses in the future.
Today, FAA rules place tight restrictions on the commercial use of unmanned systems, but the agency is working to change that with rules allowing more flights. To accelerate that process, it has set up a new UAS Center of Excellence that will be operated the Alliance for System Safety through Research Excellence (ASSURE).
The University of Alabama in Huntsville, which has conducting unmanned system operations for years, is a core member of the group.
In addition, Auburn University recently received permission to establish the first FAA-authorization to establish a flight school for commercial operators of unmanned systems.
“People see this as a growth industry,” said Bill Hutto, director of the Auburn University Aviation Center, which is establishing the flight school. “We see this as something that is going to be important statewide.”
Airbus is not the only big-name aerospace company that is investing in Alabama.
This summer, Airbus rival Boeing Co. will open a Research & Technology Center with 300 jobs in Huntsville that aims to advance the company’s technological foundation. In December, Boeing announced it had begun construction of an addition to its Alabama research center – 7,000 square feet of lab space called the Center for Applied Simulation and Analytics (CASA).
“Our goal is to bring the best and brightest in the support and analytics industry together in one location and give them all the tools they need to create the most effective simulations and analysis methods for validating new technologies,” said Steve Swaine, leader of the Boeing Alabama research center.
Lockheed Martin is another aerospace giant expanding in Alabama with a $55 million project that will add 240 employees to its Pike County workforce.
Altogether, aerospace and defense companies have invested $4 billion in Alabama during the past 10 years, with 27,000 announced jobs, according to Alabama Department of Commerce data. In 2014, the figures were $895 million in new investment and 3,500 announced jobs.
Long a national center for rocketry, North Alabama is stepping up its game in space hardware work.
Marshall is designing the propulsion system for the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever built. The SLS is meant for deep space missions, including to an asteroid and ultimately to Mars. To get there, it will require an advanced booster with more thrust than any U.S. liquid- and solid-fueled booster.
Huntsville’s Dynetics is among the Alabama companies involved in the effort.
In addition, the work Dynetics and Aerojet Rocketdyne are doing on the new rocket engine, called the AR 1, could see the engine’s final assembly take place in Decatur, according to the companies.
Meanwhile, the United Launch Alliance, which assembles Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles at its Decatur plant, is working to line up a new engine for its trusty Atlas V while also advancing a new rocket system called Vulcan.
Obviously, it’s hard to downplay the significance of Airbus’ production launch in Alabama. This summer, Mobile will become one of only three locations in the U.S. where large passenger jets are assembled, the others being Boeing’s South Carolina and Washington state manufacturing hubs.
Airbus says it has hired 280 workers for its first U.S. manufacturing facility, with the number expected to rise to 1,000 as the company ramps up to full production of four A320 Family aircraft per month. AIDT, which has established a training facility near the Airbus facility, says it has received more than 19,000 applications for Airbus positions since November 2013.
At the same time, it’s worth noting other developments going on in Alabama aerospace.
For one thing, maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) operations continue to expand in the state. In South Alabama alone, there are more than 4,000 people working at MRO operations, according to the Wiregrass Economic Development Corp. One of those, Commercial Jet Inc. in Dothan, expects to reach 500 employees by 2017, four years after opening in Alabama.
Alabama’s aerospace sector also continues to benefit from new supply-chain players such as Pennsylvania-based Carpenter Technology Corp., which invested $518 million to open a state-of-the-art plant in Limestone County that produces ultra-premium alloys for clients in aerospace and other industries.