The growing cluster of aerospace companies is reaping the rewards of a global surge in aircraft production.
Its 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. Its not a pipe dream when one considers the foundation in place in North Idaho and western Washington, economic development leaders say.
North Idaho now has three dozen aerospace companies employing about 650 people, 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.
Boeing and other equipment manufacturers are embarking on steep growth curves, and suppliers are at or over capacity, says Mike Marzetta, co-chairman of the Inland Northwest Aerospace Consortium and president of ALTEK, which fashions structural parts and power supplies in Liberty Lake, a Spokane suburb.
I think we are on the precipice of a real advance, says Rich Hadley, president and CEO of Greater Spokane Inc.
ROOM FOR MORE
The area 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 the Coeur dAlene Airport and Spokane International Airport, taking advantage of runway access. Others are spread around the region.
Quest Aircraft Co. in Sandpoint builds the Kodiak 10-seat single-engine turboprop airplane. In nearby 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. Associated Painters Inc., which paints and stripes planes, moved into a 41,000-square-foot hangar at the airport two years ago. Kaiser Aluminum Corp., which employs more than 800 people at its rolling mill in Trentwood, another Spokane suburb, is a major supplier of aluminum for aircraft makers.
In Spokane County alone, more than 80 direct and indirect suppliers for the aerospace industry employ more than 8,000 people, Greater Spokane Inc. officials estimate. Theres room for more, including large-scale operations, Hadley says.
Were in communication with three aerospace companies who are in one manner or another of seriousness toward this being a site for expansion, Hadley says. So that is why I have confidence.
IDAHO IS BUSINESS-FRIENDLY
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 thats an attraction, Hadley says.
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, says company President Jim Glenn, who also is president of the Idaho Aerospace Alliance, an industry group.
When people look and see that there is a region that is actively seeking aerospace companies to move there, theyre actively training employees to be able to work for those companies its nice to see that youre wanted, that your business is encouraged instead of discouraged, Glenn says.
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 wont be competitive anymore, says 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, its increasing the opportunity for growth.
Companies on both sides of the state line piggyback on Boeings operations in western Washington. Many of the local companies are 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 local suppliers are benefiting. Local manufacturers also are supplying parts for Boeings 787 Dreamliner, a long-range plane that seats 210 to 290 passengers and uses mostly composite materials to cut fuel consumption.
So youve got an immediate push to accelerate this as a result of Boeings growth and success, Hadley says.
AIRBUS SEEKS SUPPLIERS, TOO
Work orders also are taking off for planes made by Boeings 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.
Were growing through the entire U.S., Brubaker says, 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.
WANTED: BETTER K-12 TECH EDUCATION
Education and job skills are crucial components in further developing aerospace in the region.
You have to dig pretty deep to find qualified job applicants in this region, says ALTEKs Marzetta.
He acknowledges moves toward better preparing the workforce, such as the new Kootenai Technical Education Campus on the Rathdrum Prairie north of Coeur dAlene, the Mead School Districts Riverpoint Academy in downtown Spokane, and Spokane Community Colleges 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 (its) one were having a hard time fixing for some reason, he says.
AEROSPACE TRAINING COULD HELP, TOO
The new North Idaho College 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, says Komberec, of Empire Airlines. We have to have that workforce or we cant continue to grow. Its the thing that will stop us the quickest.
The aerospace training program will benefit his business and strengthen the regions aerospace cluster, he says.
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 says. Well be able to do it here.
And that, he says, is cause for enthusiasm.
Well 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 says. Theres just a tremendous opportunity for us.