Alabama’s aerospace industry flew to the moon with the Saturn V rocket, the brainchild of a team at the Marshall Space Flight Center. Today, Alabama’s aerospace/aviation sector is gearing up for a new set of missions that will power it to new heights.
The new $600 million Airbus manufacturing center at Mobile Aeroplex, where the aviation giant is beginning to assemble its first U.S.-made passenger jets, represents a milestone. Mobile is becoming one of just three North American locations where large passenger jets are assembled, joining Boeing hubs in South Carolina and Washington.
Airbus has hired around 280 workers for its facility, with the number rising to 1,000 at full production. To help meet the demand for skilled workers, Alabama’s job-training agency, AIDT, opened a $7 million training center near the Airbus.
While Airbus’ production launch is pivotal, there are other noteworthy developments taking place in Alabama’s aerospace industry. Here’s a rundown of five trends lifting Alabama aerospace and building on a heritage that stretches back to when the Wright Brothers opened their first civilian flight school in Montgomery a century ago.
1: 3-D Printing
Alabama is at the center of the 3-D printing revolution transforming how aerospace and aviation components are manufactured.
Additive manufacturing, another name for 3-D printing, is the high-tech opposite of traditional manufacturing techniques that involve machining. Instead, 3-D printed parts are formed by laying down layers of a powdery material, creating the component little by little.
Marshall Space Flight Center has become NASA’s additive manufacturing hub. This year, its engineers 3-D printed the first full-scale copper rocket part, a combustion chamber liner that must withstand extreme conditions. To make the liner, a selective laser melting machine at Marshall fused 8,255 layers of copper powder in just 10 days.
Elsewhere, Alabama-based Dynetics and partner Aerojet Rocketdyne, meanwhile, are using additive manufacturing to produce a new, cost-efficient U.S.-made rocket engine based on the Saturn V’s F-1 engine. The new AR-1 engine is being eyed for use in NASA’s Space Launch System, a Marshall-led project that aims to take man to the moon and Mars.
In Auburn, GE Aviation is turning its plant into the world’s first factory for 3-D printed jet-engine fuel nozzles. The company plans to produce the first nozzles by additive manufacturing later this year.
“Alabama has a long history in aerospace and aviation, but the future looks even brighter thanks to cutting-edge projects like the one being carried out by GE Aviation in Auburn,” says Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce.
“Our aerospace and aviation sector is poised to reach new altitudes in coming years as major industry players expand their Alabama operations.”
2: Unmanned Aircraft
Alabama is helping to usher in a new age for aviation – the day of the drone. They’re more properly known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or unmanned aerial systems (UAV), but whatever you call them, these craft are poised to have a massive impact thanks to a limitless range of potential commercial uses.
First, the FAA must develop rules that allow unmanned systems to safely share the skies with commercial planes. To get that moving, the FAA set up a UAS Center of Excellence operated by the ASSURE group. The University of Alabama in Huntsville, which has conducted unmanned operations for years, is a core member of ASSURE.
In addition, Auburn University just launched the first FAA-authorized flight school for commercial operators of unmanned systems. Trainees will pilot drones and receive classroom instruction on flight planning, telemetry and other essential skills. Plans call for specialized courses in fields such as precision agriculture, and topics such as geo-fencing.
Several companies have unmanned systems projects in Alabama, including Griffon Aerospace, Camber, Sierra Nevada Corp., and Lockheed Martin.
3: Sweet Home
Airbus and GE Aviation are not the only big-name aerospace companies investing in Alabama.
Boeing, which has had a presence in Alabama for more than half a century, recently opened a Research & Technology Center (BR&T) in Huntsville to advance the company’s technological foundation.
“The next 100 years of innovation starts here,” says Steve Swaine, leader of the BR&T-Alabama research center. “We’ve brought together a team made up of the best and brightest in data analytics, advanced engineering and many other disciplines to help Boeing create, develop, produce and support the best aerospace products in the world.”
Lockheed Martin is another aerospace giant expanding in Alabama, launching a $55 million project at its Troy missile factory. Raytheon, GKN and many other aerospace companies have also invested in Alabama facilities.
Altogether, aerospace and defense companies have invested $4 billion in Alabama during the past 10 years.
4: Trust in Thrust
Just a short drive from Marshall, where the SLS is being developed, stands the United Launch Alliance rocket factory in Decatur. This is where an Alabama workforce assembles the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets that thrust sensitive intelligence, communications and research satellites into orbit.
ULA is working on a revolutionary new launch system called the Vulcan that could one day be built there. European space company RUAG is basing a new manufacturing operation at the ULA facility to produce key carbon-fiber components for Atlas and Vulcan rockets.
Meanwhile, Huntsville’s Dynetics is making a push to build more space hardware in its home state. It recently fabricated a cryogenic tank, a structural simulator and a thrust vector control device for the SLS program.
In Alabama’s Rocket Central, the trajectory is upward.
One of Alabama’s oldest aerospace assets is charting a new future – Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley. An Air Force installation until 1969, the site found new life as an industrial complex. But it was Airbus’ decision to build its first U.S. manufacturing facility there that’s really pushed the throttles up on aerospace activity.
Landing Airbus accelerated an improvement program that has seen millions of dollars invested in the Aeroplex. Airbus’ pull has drawn other aviation companies to the complex, starting with an engineering center set up by France’s Safran. Recently, French industrial giant Hutchinson announced plans to open an aerospace manufacturing center. Ireland-based MAAS plans to build a $39 million paint hanger, and two other companies are opening workshops there.
As Mobile Aeroplex evolves into a hub for innovation, training and manufacturing, it’s building a solid base for the next phase of Alabama’s aerospace growth – as a major aircraft assembly center.
Together, these trends show that aerospace is taking off in Alabama.
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