Friday, September 30, 2011

Alabama: Potential suppliers learn more about GE Aviation

TUSCALOOSA | GE Aviation will break ground in a few weeks for a new plant in Auburn, but it also has a long-range plan that's even more “ground-breaking.”

The subsidiary of General Electric Co. wants to create an aerospace supplier network across Alabama, including West Alabama, an area where the industry is underrepresented.

“Aviation is a major growth industry,” said Mike Sims, GE Aviation general manager for structure and machining. “But to continue to grow, we need a good and growing supplier base.”

Sims met Thursday with about 80 business representatives at a GE Supplier Symposium at the Bryant Conference Center. The symposium's purpose was to let businesses know how to become a parts supplier to GE Aviation, which makes jet engines and other aircraft components, and other aerospace companies.

“In the aerospace industry, unlike the automotive industry, parts suppliers don't have to be next to the (aerospace) assembly plant,” Sims said.

An aerospace supplier could make parts in Tuscaloosa and ship them worldwide, he said.

Suppliers in the automotive sector or different manufacturing sectors might think it is too difficult to diversify into serving the aerospace industry, which does have unique requirements, Sims said. His company wants to help those interested in becoming aerospace suppliers to learn what they must do, he said.

“I think a lot of those here today have the potential to be good (aerospace) suppliers,” Sims said.

Alabama already has a large aerospace industry, but most of it is concentrated in the Huntsville area, where NASA and many major aerospace companies have a presence. The Alabama Development Office shows more than 200 aerospace companies in the Huntsville area.

In comparison, the state agency lists only one company in West Alabama serving the aerospace industry — Smith's Machine LLC in Cottondale.

Smith's Machine vice president Tim Smith, who attended the symposium, said he believes there is great potential for more West Alabama companies to get into the aerospace industry.

The automotive industry has been good for the area, but there is potential in aviation for businesses that want to grow, he said.

The Tuscaloosa County Industrial Development Authority, which helped host the symposium, believes so, too, and in recent years it has targeted the aerospace industry in its industrial recruiting. Tuscaloosa was a finalist for the plant that went to Auburn, where GE Aviation will make coatings for jet engines.

Dara Longgrear, the authority's executive director, said aviation has not been a large player in Tuscaloosa County's economy, in part because of the focus on building the county's automotive industry, he said.

But aviation will play a bigger role the county's future, he said.

“We have proven we have the skills and technical ability in the automotive industry, and those same skills and qualities are used in aerospace so it is a natural fit.”

Among the symposium participants was Maren Witza of Glaeser Inc., a Germany company that opened its Tuscaloosa facility this summer. Glaeser tests manufactured products for their purity and cleanliness and has automotive and medical industry customers, she said.

But Witza said she thinks her company also could serve aerospace suppliers and be a good fit in developing the aviation industry here.

Jennifer Zaden of Talascend Technical Staffing LLC in Mobile also attended the symposium.

“My main goal is to find out how we can do business with GE,” she said. “I think there is an opportunity for that. My company works in recruiting people with needed skills for specific industries.”

Richard Howell, program manager for the Alabama Procurement Technical Assistance Center, which has an office at Bidgood Hall at the University of Alabama, said he came to the conference to let businesses know that the state-financed center provides free assistance in getting the required government approvals and certifications often needed to be a supplier in the aerospace industry.

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