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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Confidence soaring for Inland Northwest aerospace industry

Aerospace manufacturing companies met in Coeur d’Alene Wednesday to collaborate and continue the advancement of the I-90 aerospace corridor.

Elbows were rubbed and business cards were exchanged. But the hundreds of aerospace insiders in attendance were there to catch Jacob Bonwell, CEO of ATC Manufacturing, a company that is leading the charge in a competition to win federal funding that could turn the aerospace manufacturers in the Inland Northwest into global players.

“A big thing we’re talking about is foreign dependence. Today, our international competitors are ahead of us – we want to get away from that,” Bonwell said on stage at the Coeur d’Alene Resort. “That’s why we’re all here – to talk about the supply chain of the I-90 corridor and to grow the jobs and capabilities.”

Officials at ATC Manufacturing and dozens of other organizations have a plan to make that happen.

Boeing, Lockheed Martin, NASA, U.S. Air Force, Gonzaga University and the city of Spokane are some of the 59 members of the Inland Northwest Consortium.

The industry leaders, venture capitalists, state, local and tribal governments in the group are planning to open a 386,000-square-foot facility in Airway Heights that, if it goes according to plan, would be the only facility in the world with its kind of tools and equipment under one roof, Bonwell said.

And they want the government to pay for it.

Since August, the consortium has gone up against around 400 other competitors for a chance to win up to $75 million from the U.S. Economic Development Administration as part of its Tech Hub program.

“It took a lot of meetings, a lot of resources and a lot of blood, sweat and tears,” Bonwell said. “We spent three months building a business case around this – we’re talking hundreds of pages of deliverables – now we’re in a waiting phase.”

Bonwell did little to hide his confidence.

“I think we’ve submitted such a robust deliverable to the EDA that I’d say we have a very high probability of being awarded this,” he said. “I think what gives us a competitive advantage is our robust consortium. One thing we also have against our competition is national organizations.”

In October, the competing tech hubs were whittled to 31. The finalists had until March to submit a final proposal for funds.

Between five and ten consortia will be selected to receive money. According to Bonwell, the news could come by late June or early July, and federal dollars could be delivered by the fall, he said.

If awarded, funds would go toward building out one place: the American Aerospace Materials Manufacturing Center.

The former Triumph Composite Systems Inc. Factory at 1514 Flint Rd., is a 50-acre property that could be a one-of-a-kind facility in the industry, he said.

“We’d have all the assets and processes under one roof, compared to our competitors who have to outsource product,” he said. “It comes in as raw material and goes out as a finished good.”

Though the group has pinpointed that they want to specialize in manufacturing parts with thermoplastics, materials that help create lighter and more fuel-efficient aircrafts, there is still much to iron out.

The governing structure of the facility and the consortia has yet to be decided, Bonwell said.

“We’re working to build the right board and committees to run this establishment and there also be an industry presence,” he said. “We’ll have industry members kind of guiding the light and shape of what we do at the hub.”

Another major hurdle is understanding what parts the manufacturing facility will specialize in and what equipment will need to be purchased to make them.

“We’ll be working with Spirit Collins, Raytheon, Lockheed and Boeing, and figuring out what kind of assets we need for this next gen aircraft and the size of parts that we plan on doing,” he said. “Then we’d modify the infrastructure to accommodate those assets.”

But creating a governing body and installing sophisticated equipment are no match for the biggest hurdle to making the inland northwest a global leader in aerospace manufacturing, according to Bonwell.

If the American Aerospace Materials Manufacturing Center is going to be a success, they have to find people to work there.

“I think the largest part of this entire endeavor is building our future workforce,” he said. “We need to start training that workforce in the K-12 programs and growing their capabilities for that next gen platform.”

Whether the Inland Northwest Consortium is chosen to receive a major federal investment or not, Bonwell believes the Airway Heights facility will find the required capital investments.

“Let’s say the EDA gives us $20 million instead of the $72 million we’re after; we can still go after (National Science Foundation) funding or (Federal Aviation Administration) funding,” he said. “There’s other capabilities and avenues we can take to ensure that this tech hub comes to fruition.”