Cluster helps engineer Mobile’s future


  • August 31, 2015
  • /   Matt Irvin
  • /   economy

Phil Gurvitz doesn’t hedge when asked why France’s AKKA Technologies decided to set up shop not far from where Airbus will assemble U.S.-built jetliners.

While AKKA’s initial staffing will be small, Gurvitz sees a bright future for aerospace engineering at the Mobile Aeroplex, which he sees as being in the “perfect position” for growth.

“I believe this will really develop exponentially,” Gurvitz said. “We have the rails, we have the interstates, we’re right on the sea. I believe there’s nothing holding it back.”

Mobile’s nascent aerospace engineering cluster started getting attention a few months ago when the Mobile Airport Authority announced that three more engineering companies would set up shop at the Aeroplex.

Roger Wehner, executive director of the Mobile Airport Authority, sees a bright future for the cluster at the 1,700-acre Aeroplex. “We think the engineering support will grow here,” he said, especially industrial engineers, who are in “big demand” in the local aerospace industry.

Engineers in the Gulf Coast region involved in aerospace activities have historically clustered near Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., where aerial weapons are developed, Stennis Space Center, Miss., where propulsion system are tested, and Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, where spacecraft are fabricated.

Airbus Engineering Center: airbus.com
251-434-7200
Safran: safran-group.com
703-351-9898
AKKA Technologies: akka.eu
251-405-0097; 205-632-8520
Sonovision: sonovisiongroup.com
623-455-9132
Inter Informatics: inter-informatics.com
251-434-4299

Mobile has engineers, including aerospace at Continental Motors, but most of the engineers are civil and industrial. There’s also a concentration of marine engineers and naval architects that’s above the national average, with a location quotient of 12.79.1

But the arrival of Airbus Engineering Center in 2007 signaled the possible growth of the aerospace engineering sector. It opened with just 35 employees, but today has over 200.

Then the Safran Group, another of the world’s top 10 aerospace and defense companies, announced in December 2012 that it would open a $2 million center at the Aeroplex.

Safran Engineering produces wiring solutions for Airbus and other companies in the aerospace industry. Clients include Boeing, Bombardier, Embraer, Dassault, Eurocopter, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. Safran Group also has a long-term relationship with GE, developing and producing jet engines for civil aviation.

Even though it has yet to occupy its new office space in Mobile, Safran’s footprint at the Aeroplex promises to grow. In mid-June, a Safran company, Messier-Bugatti-Dowty – a world leader in in aircraft landing gear and braking systems – announced it will open an office and workshop in Mobile to support the A320 assembly line. Safran USA spokeswoman Michelle Lyle said MBD would begin operations in September, and she hinted at an even greater Safran presence.

When the new Safran building opens in Mobile, it “will house MBD and several other Group companies that will also contribute to the (Airbus A320) program.

“This decision reflects Safran’s commitment to support customers locally and expand our relationship with Airbus,” Lyle said by email. “Safran’s presence in this major aviation hub is in line with its strategy to be close to customers in the U.S. and the world.”

But it’s the engineering cluster that’s drawing attention. In Alabama, Huntsville is the leader by far for aerospace engineers, with more than 3,000 and a location quotient of 28.49.2

But Mobile is in the game.

AKKA Technologies, Sonovision and Inter-Informatics were lured to the Aeroplex thanks to prior relationships with Airbus and because the aerospace campus was able to set them up in its engineering incubator. By sharing facilities like a reception area and office equipment, they’ll be able to keep costs down prior to expansions.

AKKA’s Gurvitz said his company has had a long-term relationship as a primary subcontractor for Airbus, so when the plane-maker announced it would launch an assembly line in Mobile, it asked the AKKA to also open on the Gulf Coast.

“The incubator was a big draw,” said Gurvitz, Southeast Region Program Leader for AKKA Technologies Group North America.

AKKA, headquartered in Paris, performs a range of engineering work for Airbus, including upgrade services, research and development, maintenance paperwork management, specifications work and project management. Though the Mobile office has only a small contingent for now, Gurvitz said, the local team works closely with all the European offices.

“We get work out of Hamburg (Germany) and Mobile,” he said, and that relationship is two-way. Depending on workload, certain aspects of projects may be handled out of the offices of either city.

Indeed, this is one of the advantages of industrial clusters. The ability to work with partners can ease workload, solve problems more quickly and drive innovation. David Trent, site director of the Airbus Engineering Center in Mobile, said having partners with similar capabilities in close proximity can enhance the climate for major projects.

“From time to time we resource specific work to companies like these for various reasons, including stretched internal resources or needing a specific capability,” said Trent, leader of a facility that employs more than 220 engineers in support of several Airbus projects, including the company’s newest plane, the A350 XWB, and the A380, the world’s largest commercial airliner.

While the A320 line was a powerful reason for these companies to come to the Gulf Coast, the region’s ever-expanding aerospace industry made coming here an attractive proposition.

“It is important to remember that Airbus is not the only customer in Mobile,” Trent said. “Having a cluster of engineering consulting firms in the area does enhance Mobile’s aerospace community, and as a result, we are all benefiting,” he said.

As one example, Gurvitz said AKKA is about to engage in a project with Continental Motors at the Aeroplex. He said his company also does work for other major aerospace companies, including Boeing and Northrop Grumman, both of which have operations in the Gulf Coast.

In addition to aerospace, AKKA works in major industries including automotive, railways, defense, pharmaceuticals, energy and telecom. The company’s subsidiary, Mercedes Benz Technology, has offices in various states, including Tuscaloosa, Ala., supporting the automotive industry.

The Sonovision Group works in the fields of logistics and document engineering. With headquartered in the Paris suburb of Bagneux, it has operations in France and seven other countries. It works with clients in aerospace, transportation, defense and energy. Sonovision provides project management support, technology risk management, engineering and production of maintenance tools, technical document engineering and language engineering, such as translations and presentations, and multilingual project management.

Inter-Informatics is an engineering and design consultancy with headquarters in Prague, Czech Republic. The company’s varied offerings include expertise in aerospace, information technology and railway vehicles and machinery.

Its aerospace division works on aircraft interior design and engineering, with services that include concept and detail design, development, customization and upgrades, stress analysis, manufacturing and installation support. Other services include airframe design and stress justification and documentation with both metallic and composite structures; electrical subsystem integration and design, and avionics installation; and tool and jig designs for aircraft manufacturing.

The company has worked with Airbus since 2000. Inter-Informatics has offices in several countries, mainly in Europe. The Mobile Aeroplex office is one of two in the United States; the other is in Miami.

Gulf_Coast_Aerospace_Corridor.com is a website created in 2008 to highlight aerospace activities along the Interstate 10 corridor between New Orleans and Northwest Florida. It includes reference material, job postings, a daily aerospace newsfeed and weekly column. In 2011, the website teamed with several journalists to create the Gulf Coast Reporters’ League, which writes and publishes an annual book about aerospace in the region. The first book was published in June 2011. In September 2013, the League launched an eight-page quarterly aerospace newsletter, which became a bimonthly in August 2014 after the League published the fourth edition of the annual.

All the books can be found at: www.gulfcoastaerospacecorridor.com/gcacbooksall.html
and all the newsletters can be found at
www.gulfcoastaerospacecorridor.com/gcacnewslettersall.html.