A growing cluster of aerospace companies in the Inland Northwest is reaping the rewards of a global surge in aircraft production.
It’s also setting the table for a main course that could nourish the economy much like health care and education do today.
The ultimate prize would be an assembly or manufacturing plant employing a thousand or more workers. It’s not a pipe dream when one considers the foundation in place in Spokane County and North Idaho, economic development leaders say.
“I think we are on the precipice of a real advance,” said Rich Hadley, president and CEO of Greater Spokane Incorporated.
In Spokane County alone, more than 80 direct and indirect suppliers for the aerospace industry employ more than 8,000 people, GSI officials estimate.
North Idaho is building an aerospace cluster of its own, with three dozen companies employing about 650, state officials say. And North Idaho College recently received a $2.97 million federal grant to train people for aerospace work.
The region can tout an attractive workforce size, lower labor costs than the Puget Sound area, new investment in education and training, large chunks of land ready for development, airports eager to court new business, and growing collaboration between established companies.
“It just feels like we’re going to take the next step and we’re going to be able to grow this industry increasingly,” Hadley said.
Boeing and other equipment manufacturers are embarking on steep growth curves, and suppliers are at or over capacity, said Mike Marzetta, co-chairman of the Inland Northwest Aerospace Consortium and president of ALTEK, which fashions structural parts and power supplies in Liberty Lake.
“We’re working to position the Inland Northwest to be the recipient of that growth,” Marzetta said.
Room for more
The area already is home to a diverse array of small and midsize businesses involved in the production and service of aircraft, with more companies landing every few years.
Some have set up shop on the edges of Spokane International Airport and the Coeur d’Alene Airport, taking advantage of runway access. Others are spread around the region, from Liberty Lake to Bonner County.
Associated Painters Inc. moved into a 41,000-square-foot hangar at the Spokane airport two years ago. The company paints and stripes planes in the $5 million facility.
Quest Aircraft Co. in Sandpoint builds the KODIAK 10-seat single-engine turboprop airplane. And nearby in Ponderay, Cygnus Inc. manufactures 180,000 sheet metal parts and assemblies annually for commercial and military planes and missile programs.
Near the Spokane airport, Triumph Composite Systems makes commercial and cargo floor panels, environmental control systems and ducting, while United Technologies manufactures carbon brakes.
Kaiser Aluminum Corp., which employs more than 800 at its Trentwood rolling mill, is a major supplier of aluminum for aircraft makers.
There’s room for more, including large-scale operations, Hadley said.
“We’re in communication with three aerospace companies who are in one manner or another of seriousness toward this being a site for expansion,” Hadley said. “So that is why I have confidence.”
The regional aerospace consortium is working to get ready for the growth. That includes identifying three industrial sites of 200 acres or greater that would accommodate a large manufacturing or assembly plant. Officials also are exploring transportation needs, such as rail spurs and freeway interchanges, to serve new aerospace companies.
“If an aerospace company makes a decision, we can get a building permit in 30 to 45 days. And that’s an attraction,” Hadley said.
Titan Spring Inc., which makes springs and wire for the aerospace industry, moved to Hayden from North Hollywood, Calif., five years ago.
“The whole area has a lot of enthusiasm for aerospace, and Idaho especially is an extremely business-friendly place to be,” said company President Jim Glenn, who also is president of the Idaho Aerospace Alliance representing the industry.
“When people look and see that there is a region that is actively seeking aerospace companies to move there, they’re actively training employees to be able to work for those companies … it’s nice to see that you’re wanted, that your business is encouraged instead of discouraged,” Glenn said.
Engines of growth
Worldwide the aerospace industry is experiencing rapid change and growth. Demand for lighter planes that use less fuel and travel farther is spurring a revolution in manufacturing. Airlines and leasing agencies are replacing aging fleets, and emerging markets in China, India and South America are propelling commercial production lines.
“The airlines must transition or they won’t be competitive anymore,” said Timothy Komberec, president and CEO of Empire Airlines in Hayden.
“For the people that can provide the technology and the things that are needed to keep up with it, it’s increasing the opportunity for growth,” he said.
Spokane and North Idaho piggyback on Boeing’s operations in Western Washington, with many of the local companies now part of the lucrative supply chain for planes like the 737 MAX, in high demand worldwide. The aerospace giant has ramped up production at its Renton plant, and suppliers locally are benefiting.
Inland Northwest manufacturers also are supplying parts for Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, a long-range plane that seats 210 to 290 passengers and uses mostly composite materials to cut fuel consumption.
“So you’ve got an immediate push to accelerate this as a result of Boeing’s growth and success,” Hadley said.
Work orders also are taking off for planes made by Boeing’s chief competitor, Europe-based Airbus, which is expanding production in the U.S.
Carleen Brubaker, a supplier development director for Airbus Americas Inc., recently visited Hayden-based Unitech Composites and Structures, which is completing a rigorous certification process to supply Airbus.
“We’re growing through the entire U.S.,” Brubaker said, noting that Airbus spent $6 billion in this country last year alone and has about 700 U.S. suppliers. “Things are looking very good in aerospace.”
The company expects to spend even more over the next five to 10 years, with a new final assembly line being built in Alabama. Competition for qualified suppliers is intense, and Airbus is turning to companies like Unitech to help supply parts for assembly of its next-generation A350 extra-wide-body plane, seating 250 to 350 passengers.
Education, skill needs
Education and job skills are crucial components in further developing aerospace in the region.
A study commissioned last year by the Washington Aerospace Partnership cited education as one of the state’s competitive disadvantages. Other states are doing more to prop up science, technology, engineering and math programs in public schools, as well as integrate research universities and aerospace industries. Deep cuts in higher education funding in Washington was another problem area, the study found.
“You have to dig pretty deep” to find qualified job applicants in this region, said ALTEK’s Marzetta.
He acknowledged moves toward better preparing the workforce, such as the new Kootenai Technical Education Campus on the Rathdrum Prairie, the Mead School District’s Riverpoint Academy in downtown Spokane, and Spokane Community College’s Aviation Maintenance Technology program at Felts Field Airport.
But Marzetta says an even greater emphasis on technology education at the K-12 level is needed to bridge skill gaps in emerging aerospace fields.
“It still needs to be a high priority and (it’s) one we’re having a hard time fixing for some reason,” he said.
The new NIC aerospace program will train displaced workers, military veterans and other students in general aviation, airframe composites and non-destructive testing.
“We need to make sure that we can educate our workforce, educate our kids, educate the people transitioning out of industries such as timber and so on,” said Komberec, of Empire Airlines. “We have to have that workforce or we can’t continue to grow. It’s the thing that will stop us the quickest.”
The aerospace training program will benefit his business and strengthen the region’s aerospace cluster, he said.
“We send our people out of state for days at a time to some pretty expensive courses, or bring very expensive instructors up here to teach our people and get them certified and qualified,” Komberec said. “We’ll be able to do it here.”
And that, he said, is cause for enthusiasm.
“We’ll never be as big as Seattle, but we can employ several thousand people in this area in the future with living-wage jobs, clean technology, highly educated people,” he said. “There’s just a tremendous opportunity for us.”