TUSCALOOSA — Alabama’s aviation industry is poised to reach new heights, a top official with the industry’s latest addition to the state said Thursday.
“Alabama has a rising reputation in the aviation industry with the work being done in Huntsville, Mobile and other places,” said Mike Sims, general manager with GE Aviation, which is building an engine coatings plant in Auburn that will eventually create around 400 jobs.
“Alabama is well positioned to see a great deal of growth in this industry.”
The industry giant’s jet-engine division hosted a business supplier symposium in Tuscaloosa’s Bryant Conference Center Thursday with the Tuscaloosa County Industrial Development Authority. It featured a keynote address from U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa.
In an interview after his address, Shelby said there are a number of major aerospace and aviation initiatives that could boost the state’s presence in the industry. He said though Airbus parent company EADS failed to win a tanker contract with the U.S. Air Force, Airbus may end up building commercial airplanes in Mobile.
“They’re looking to see if it’s feasible,” Shelby said. “I would like to see it happen.” Jeff Thompson, executive director of the Alabama Aerospace Industry Association, said the industry in Alabama and throughout the country was grounded by the economic downturn but has since returned.
“I think we hit bottom are we’re starting to climb back,” he said. “The future looks really bright.”
GE’s Sims told the 100 or so attendees at Thursday’s symposium to not limit their options to the Auburn plant, but look for ways of doing business with GE around the world and with other aerospace companies.
Aviation is about a $20 billion industry for General Electric, and the company spends more than $1 billion annually in research and development on just the aviation side of its operations, Sims said. GE Aviation has 83 facilities in 11 countries with around 37,000 employees.
It also has 13,000 suppliers and the capacity to add many more. One of those businesses is Alabama’s GKN Aerospace, which operates an aircraft components plant in Tallassee with around 1,000 employees.
Holly Spain, contracts manager for GKN, said the Tallassee plant did around $230 million in business in 2010, with $50 million of that with GE.
“That makes us the largest GE supplier in Alabama,” she said.
Among the GKN’s projects for GE is a new composite housing for turbine engines that reduces the weight by 600 pounds. That engine is used in Boeing’s new Dreamliner commercial jet.
Sims said GE Aviation left this year’s Paris Air Show with $27 billion in new orders for engines and components, some of which are not even commercially available yet.
Thompson said if one company is experiencing substantial growth it bodes well for the entire industry.
“The future looks really bright,” he said.
Businesses that took part in Thursday’s symposium learned what it takes to do business with GE — from the company’s supplier selection process to the quality and regulatory requirements that come with being an aviation industry supplier. Company officials were able to break out into face-to-face sessions with GE representatives.
Eric Hinton, the sourcing leader for GE Aviation, said the company purchases 80 percent of its components, or about $9 billion annually, from suppliers.
“We’re looking for suppliers that can grow globally and support all of our businesses,” Hinton said.
Dara Longgrear, executive director of the Tuscaloosa County Industrial Development Authority, said he had the idea for the symposium when GE Aviation was searching for sites to build its new coatings plant. Although the company chose Auburn, Longgrear said he wanted to host the symposium anyway because he sees the potential for expanding the aviation industry in west Alabama and GE officials agreed.
“From the time they began looking, we had the idea of helping them grow their supplier base across the state,” he said. “We plan to continue working with them and their suppliers to make them successful and grow the industry here.”
Any Jocham, director of industrial recruitment and retention at the authority, said it has identified a 60-acre site at the Tuscaloosa Regional Airport it is marketing to companies in the industry who need access to a long runway.
Sims said he hoped to leave the symposium with up to a dozen viable new suppliers for GE Aviation.