Finding a niche in aerospace: Local businesses offering alternatives for production, supplies

It’s just after dawn when members of Washington’s delegation to the Farnborough Air Show roll out of bed in their London hotels. Though their internal clocks, still set on Pacific Daylight Time, tell them it’s time to go to bed instead of time to rise, they ignore those diurnal inconsistencies and ready themselves for what promises to be an exhausting day.

They’re due to gather for the daily 6 a.m. delegation breakfast to discuss their strategies for the day.

They are on a mission to win more business for one of the Evergreen State’s most important industries, aerospace.

It’s an industry that directly employs more than 92,000 people in Washington and creates thousands more jobs indirectly.

But in recent years, it’s an industry that’s become more competitive both internationally and within the United States. Boeing’s decision three years ago, for instance, to build its first final assembly plant for commercial airliners outside the Pacific Northwest in South Carolina is a sign that Washington’s preeminence in the aerospace industry isn’t assured.

Boeing rival Airbus’ recent announcement that it will build a final assembly factory for its airliners in Mobile, Ala., is yet another signal that the industry is looking for less expensive, alternate sites for aerospace manufacturing.

That competitive situation was a prime motivator behind the Washington aerospace industry’s and state and local government’s decision to mount a big sales effort at early July’s Farnborough show, said Alex Pietsch, the governor’s new aerospace coordinator.

As salesman-in-chief for Washington’s aerospace industry, he backed up the governor and industry leaders’ efforts to tell Washington’s story to the aerospace industry at the world’s largest gathering of aerospace industry producers and contractors.

Pierce County aerospace suppliers and economic development officials were part of that effort at the Farnborough show, named for an airport just outside London where the show is held every other year. Farnborough alternates with the Paris Air Show as the biggest event of the year for the industry.

Three Pierce County aerospace suppliers, MetalTech of Sumner, a metal tooling and production shop; Globe Machine, a Tacoma-based composite materials machinery maker, and Service Steel Aerospace, a Fife distributor of aerospace steel and titanium, accompanied local economic development officials to the show.

Those officials were Susan Suess, senior vice-president of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County and Denise Dyer, Pierce County’s economic development director.

For Suess and several of the Pierce County aerospace companies the recent mission was their first trip to Europe for the aerospace show.

By all accounts, the trip was no junket. Those who went on the mission said they worked dawn to late in the evening meeting with prospective customers and talking with aerospace contractors about their needs.

“It was the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life,” said TJ Richards, MetalTech’s general manager. “I’ll have to go back someday to see London.”

“We had meetings nonstop,” said Robert Edmondson, MetalTech’s corporate accounts and business development manager.

HECTIC SCHEDULE

Here was the daily air show routine: after the early morning breakfast, said Suess, the delegation boarded the London subway to a station where they caught a train to near the airport. They then took a shuttle bus to the air show site.

Once at the air show, they met with others among the 1,400 exhibitors either in private areas at the Washington state stand or in common areas at the show.

The state helped arrange many of those meetings in advance, said Edmondson. If the aerospace companies asked, the governor would send an introductory letter to help them open the door.

The air show gave them access to senior level executives of potential customer companies, even prospective customers in Western Washington that they wouldn’t have been able to meet otherwise, said the two MetalTech managers.

Because the air show is a break in the routine of daily production for both suppliers and customers alike, the format allows more time to sit down and meet others in the industry, Edmondson and Richards said.

Ron Jacobsen, corporate projects manager at Globe, said that during the show he had three successive meetings with a prospective customer who expressed serious interest in Globe’s “Rapid Cure” technology for aerospace composites. Each meeting, he said, carried the discussion deeper into the details of the company’s new technology and brought Globe closer to a sale.

Globe’s “Rapid Cure” technology has the potential to dramatically cut the time and expense of creating composite parts for aircraft. Conventional technology now requires composite parts, fabricated with tape impregnated with carbon fibers, to be baked for several hours in a huge, high pressure oven called an autoclave.

Globe’s new technology produces similar parts in just 17 minutes without an autoclave, he said.

MetalTech’s trip to the air show produced contracts from two firms, both in Washington, for metal tooling. Producing those tools will require some 1,600 hours of labor.

SIZING UP THE COMPETITION, AND AIRBUS

But beyond the contracts, said the MetalTech managers, the trip gave them a chance to size up the competition (“Their quality isn’t up to our standards,” said Richards) and to meet new potential customers. That face-to-face contact, they said, is likely to produce more work in the future for their bank of high-technology computer-driven milling machines.

The governor’s clout helped the delegation score a meeting with Airbus where the European planemaker talked about its needs for both its new Alabama plant and its ongoing product requirement for present and future aircraft.

“I had my ideas about how politicians operate before I went,” said Richards. “But the governor worked without a break for the delegation and for Washington. I was impressed.”

Meanwhile, Suess and Dyer met with companies that expressed interest in Pierce County as a potential site for new operations and circulated throughout the show talking with prospects about Pierce County’s advantages.

Suess said the competition was strong. Twenty-one states were represented at the fair. Eight states’ delegations including Washington’s were led by their governors.

Clearly, most of those other states had targeted Washington in their presentations to prospective aerospace companies, said Suess.

“We were met with questions about the cost of labor and whether we could build them a factory or forgive their taxes,” she said.

Pietsch said some companies’ heads may be turned by the promise of giveaways or cheap labor, but many realize the benefits of them locating in an area where there’s a huge cluster of aerospace suppliers and customers and where the labor pool is deep and skilled.

“There are pretty sophisticated companies,” he said. “They know the value of proximity and a knowledgeable workforce.”

Pietsch said the state with the help of contacts made at the air show, is deeply involved in discussion of one aerospace company he expects may soon announce it will open a factory here employing some 200 workers.

“I think we’ll see the rewards are there for such a mission both now and in the future,” he said.

John Gillie: 253-597-8663
[email protected]

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