Aerospace manufacturing here is on the rise and is expected to continue to grow as manufacturers beef up their efforts to attract business, industry sources say.
In all, the aerospace industry in the Inland Northwest has grown to include 8,100 workers, with an annual payroll of $325 million, and manufacturing is a large and growing part of that industry, says Robin Toth, director of business development at Greater Spokane Incorporated.
GSI is supporting a group called the Inland Northwest Aerospace Consortium (INWAC), which runs trecruitment and awareness campaigns to bolster the region's aerospace industry, Toth says.
The aerospace manufacturing sector here is made up of a variety of companies, ranging from giant aluminum manufacturer Kaiser Aluminum Corp. to small custom hose product maker Belair Composites.
"We're seeing some growth in the manufacturing sector," Toth says. "Triumph Composite Systems and Kaiser Aluminum have added quite a few jobs."
Mike Schelstrate, director of human resources for Triumph Composite Systems Inc., of Spokane, a subsidiary of Pennsylvania-based Triumph Group Inc., says the company has been in a hiring mode since about last summer. It currently has 516 employees at its plant near Airway Heights, up from about 450 employees a year ago, he says.
"The main hiring activity has been in entry-level production work," Schelstrate says.
The company manufactures environmental control system ductwork for aircraft. It also manufactures aircraft floor panels and other nonstructural aerospace products.
Schelstrate says about four or five people apply to the company for every position available, and most positions are being filled by local candidates.
"There is quite a lot of interest in those jobs, and we're finding good people," he says.
Patrick Jones, Triumph Composite Systems' director of operations, says he expects the rise in employment there to continue because the company's largest customer, Chicago-based Boeing Co., is expecting growth in production of three of its major aircraft lines.
Toth says other manufacturers here are working to gain aerospace-standard and Boeing-specific certification to make themselves eligible for more aerospace work.
"It's a big investment for certification," she says. "These companies are hoping they can parlay that into more work."
Mike Marzetta, president of Altek Inc., a Liberty Lake contract manufacturer, says aerospace is the fastest-growing sector of Altek's business. While it comprises 20 percent of Altek's business, it makes up 75 percent of all new business opportunities, Marzetta says.
"That's been a purposeful strategy," he says. "We've done aerospace manufacturing for 15 to 20 years. We haven't gone after it this aggressively in the past."
Altek recently obtained an aerospace certification called AS 9100, which is a standard requirement to be eligible for many aerospace manufacturing contracts, Marzetta says.
Altek also has been focusing on a strategy of consolidating stages of manufacturing. For instance, the company manufactures aircraft hubcaps that include internal parts used to monitor and inflate certain aircraft tires. The manufacturing process involves injection molding, machining metal parts, painting, printing, and assembly.
"We do all that in-house," Marzetta says. "We can do what five suppliers do."
That ability is attractive to aerospace companies that are looking for cost-saving ways to consolidate and eliminate suppliers, he says.
"Certification took us a good year and significant resources," he says. "It's just good business. It forces you to a higher level of discipline."
Aerospace parts aren't high volume for Altek, but they bring in much more revenue per unit than general manufactured parts, which typically don't require aerospace tolerances or specialty materials.
Altek employs 180 people, up from 120 last year, but below its 2008 peak of 225 employees.
"We've been selectively hiring here and there for aerospace growth," Marzetta says. "We've hired one machinist per month for the last six months."
Belair Composites, of Spokane Valley, is looking to aerospace to help shore up its lagging sales, says Chris Olson, vice president of marketing for the company, which makes custom hose products for aviation and automotive uses.
Olson says about a third of Belair's business is for the aerospace market, including aircraft service shops at small airports.
Unlike some of the larger aerospace employers here, the last two years have been rough for Belair, which has nine employees, down from 28 employees a few years ago. Olson says the company has lost a lot of business to foreign competitors.
"It's hard for us to make parts and compete with labor costs there," he says, referring to manufacturing operations overseas.
Belair is responding by going through the aerospace certification process to allow it to act as a direct vendor to aerospace companies.
"We're hoping within the next six months we will be certified AS 9100," he says.
Then, perhaps, Belair won't have to rely on other aerospace manufacturers for subcontract work, Olson says.
"We've been third-tier vendors," he says. "Our parts go on somebody else's parts, and they sell them to aerospace companies like Boeing. Once we get certification it will be easier for us to make some direct contacts."
Olson says he expects Belair will grow back to its former size in the next three to four years.
Belair also will continue to provide custom-application products it manufactures for small job shops at airports, he says.
"We have a lot of small customers who have kept us alive," Olson says. "We won't throw away the small guys to get a big one."
He says orders from job shops have picked up in the last few months, and adds, "Something is looking up."
One strength of the aerospace manufacturing sector here is its ability to make other kinds of products when the number of aerospace contracts falls off, Toth says.
"A lot of companies in INWAC have a focus on aerospace, but also provide a variety of diversified parts to a variety of industries," she says.
Aerospace jobs, though, tend to pay more than other manufacturing jobs.
To attract those jobs, GSI through INWAC is involved in marketing the aerospace industry here to site selectors for companies that are looking to move or expand to new locations, Toth says.
"We're targeting original equipment manufacturers and other aerospace service providers in Oregon," she says. "With the potential for the new tanker and new Boeing airliners, we want to position ourselves as being a great place for aerospace and aerospace-related companies." Boeing and a European aircraft consortium are competing for a lucrative contract to build the next generation of U.S. Air Force tanker planes.
Mike Mooney, of Triumph, is one of the organizers of INWAC, which hosted the governor's aerospace summit here last year.
"We put this together a few years ago, and people have heard of us now," Mooney says. "If nothing else, the name recognition is successful."
The group is hoping that recognition will help boost aerospace revenue here.
"Most everybody is predicting annual growth in the 5 percent to 10 percent range," Mooney says, referring to INWAC members.
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