State News

July 27, 2013

Savannah aims for prominent role as aircraft hub

The Lowcountry coastline has become as popular with aircraft manufacturers as sunbathers and retirees.

Stretching from Boeing’s 4-year-old Dreamliner plant in Charleston, S.C., south to Gulfstream’s facilities in Savannah and Brunswick and on to Brazilian firm Embraer’s new military fighter production center in Jacksonville, Fla., the coast can claim aerospace capital of the South status.

And Savannah Economic Development Authority officials are intent on making Savannah the aerospace supplier capital of the corridor.

Last week’s announcement that aircraft parts supplier LMI Aerospace would expand its Savannah facility and nearly triple its local workforce underscored the potential, SEDA CEO Trip Tollison said.

With Gulfstream’s explosive growth — the local facility has doubled in size in the last five years — and Savannah’s proximity to Boeing and Embraer’s facilities, the “sky is the limit” for Savannah, Tollison said.

“We’re in a sweet spot geographically here, with the largest aerospace manufacturer in the South in our backyard and Boeing and Embraer within two hour drives,” Tollison said. “There are almost 30 companies that supply all three manufacturers. Our challenge is: How do we market to and work with those prospects?”

LMI is a “great foundation” from which to build a supplier hub, Tollison said.

The company opened its Savannah facility in 2003 with five employees. Once the new expansion is completed later this year, LMI will boast a local workforce of more than 150 employees and will have broadened the company’s local services to include machining and assembly of aircraft components.

SEDA will sell LMI’s Savannah success story in targeting other suppliers seeking to expand or relocate.

“Over time, this area promises to grow as an aerospace destination,” LMI CEO Ronald Saks said. “Obviously, we’ve been pleased with our experience here. They just need to keep working on the aerospace infrastructure.”

Building what Saks calls “aerospace infrastructure” is a challenge nearly as complex as the innards of an airplane wing.

Attracting the suppliers to the suppliers is one piece, Saks said. LMI’s expansion could lead some of its suppliers to open local facilities, and Savannah could then better court other companies those suppliers serve.

With more and more manufacturers embracing LEAN manufacturing practices — keeping a low parts inventory onsite and asking suppliers to deliver to the factory regularly, often daily — suppliers need to be close. LMI’s success locally is the result of its reputation for “just in time” delivery of parts to Gulfstream.

Workforce development is another issue in bettering Savannah’s “aerospace infrastructure.” Savannah Technical College’s aviation technology programs and Georgia Tech’s professional education courses provide needed resources.

The STEM initiatives in the local schools should prove beneficial as well, SEDA’s Tollison said. STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

“Gulfstream is increasingly happy with the progress we are making on the workforce development side, and we need to leverage and capitalize on that,” Tollison said. “We have caught on to what is going on in aerospace. We have scratched the surface.”

Aerospace infrastructure evolves with the size and activities of locally based manufacturers, said Gulfstream’s Ira Berman, the company’s senior vice president, administration and general counsel.

Gulfstream considers having suppliers nearby beneficial because it allows the business jet maker to be “more collaborative with the suppliers,” Berman said. Gulfstream has several local suppliers, including FlightSafety International, which has offered pilot training on Gulfstream aircraft at its local facility for decades.

“I don’t know that there is a supplier ecosystem,” Berman said. “Our presence here and the presence of other (manufacturers) in the I-95 corridor is what creates the ecosystem more than any critical mass of suppliers.”

SEDA’s push into the aerospace supplier sector is pending.

The staff has done the research, identifying 28 companies that serve Gulfstream, Boeing and Embraer and 24 more that supply Gulfstream and at least one of the others.

The LMI expansion is a “great start” for the process because it involved wooing Valent Aerostructures. Valent machines and assembles aircraft components, such as wings, and was poised to announce the opening of a Savannah facility six months ago.

That process was interrupted when LMI approached Valent’s leadership about buying the company. LMI acquired Valent a few months later and decided to expand its Savannah facility rather than open a new plant for the operations it inherited from Valent.

Another recent announcement by an aircraft parts supplier relocating to the area should help SEDA’s efforts. Quaker City Plating is opening a facility in Brunswick in early 2014. Quaker City plates the metal used in fixtures in bathrooms and elsewhere on Gulfstream aircraft.

SEDA is finalizing a rebranding initiative that will involve a website update and new marketing materials. Once that is complete, SEDA will begin to reach out to its aerospace parts supplier targets.

“We’re excited about what’s coming on the branding side,” Tollison said. “Timing our push to when we roll that stuff out only makes sense.”

Count Gulfstream among those confident Savannah will attract additional suppliers in the future.

“Our work with SEDA and the city and county and state . we have enjoyed working with them,” Berman said. “They’ve helped us enormously.”

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