ichita has been promoting itself as the “Air Capital of the World” since the late 1920s, a period during which the city’s Cessna Aircraft Company produced more airplanes than anyone else. Ambitious new programs and facilities launched and unveiled in 2022 at Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) have served to bolster that bold and longstanding claim.
Established in 1985, NIAR is the nation’s largest academic aviation research and development institution. With a focus on testing and certification for airframe technologies among other areas of specialized expertise, NIAR has a staff of 975 and 1.6 million sq. ft. of laboratory and office space spread across six facilities. Its laboratories are producing innovations in additive manufacturing, advanced coatings, advanced materials, virtual engineering and other cutting-edge aerospace disciplines.
In March of 2022, the U.S. Air Force awarded a whopping $100 million follow-on contract to NIAR to continue the digital transformation of the legendary B-1 bomber, the backbone of the military’s strategic bomber force. As the largest such award ever received by Wichita State, the contract is aimed at breathing new life into the B-1 fleet, now nearly a half-century old, pending the development of a new bomber force.
Just as the B-1 is being rejuvenated, popular passenger aircraft such as the Airbus 321, Boeing 737, Boeing 757 and Boeing 777 are being repurposed as freighters and for other missions through the robust Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility at NIAR WERX. Based out of the former Boeing Air Force One modification facilities adjacent to McConnell Air Force Base, the NIAR WORKS team, according to WSU, “implements innovative and efficient methods for the rapid development of engineering, modification, testing and certification” of new and modified aircraft.
In May, NIAR WERX and Portland-based Erickson Precision Ventures announced a collaboration to perform as many as 24 passenger-to-freighter (P2F) conversions of the Airbus 321, beginning in 2023. The venture is to produce some 1,500 new jobs. In addition to full-time engineers and engineering students at WSU-NIAR, the program is expected to involve the efforts of students from the WSU Campus of Applied Sciences and Technology, a public community college. WSU Tech’s Get to WERX program offers full-time, paid employment at NIAR WERX to students as they progress through the college’s Aviation Maintenance Technology program.
“The Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul program has been an essential driver in fueling the talent pipeline through career training and education for our students, as well as full-time employment for aircraft and engineering professionals in south central Kansas,” said WSU President Rick Muma. “The MRO has also been a fundamental force in advancing the overall prosperity of Kansas by further establishing our reputation as Air Capital of the World.”
An Open Door to Innovation
As these examples demonstrate, collaborations with industry are fundamental to NIAR’s mission. Such partnerships seem sure to multiply with the recent opening of the Manufacturing Innovation Center at NIAR’s Advanced Technologies Lab for Aerospace Systems (ATLAS). Established in 2019, ATLAS is a makerspace for industry-scale automated manufacturing research. The facility has grown to employ more than 100 research engineers and student technicians.
The Manufacturing Innovation Center is a partnership between NIAR and Solvay, a global leader in advanced aerospace materials, and is devoted to enabling advances in light-weight composite technologies. At the Manufacturing Innovation Center, Solvay said in a release, the country’s leading aviation companies will have access to 150,000 sq. ft. of testing and prototyping facilities as well as the latest know-how in advanced aviation material research.
“Companies will be able to fabricate entire aircraft structures such as wings and fuselages at a fraction of the cost of making it themselves,” Solvay said. Using automated and high-rate processing, Solvay and NIAR engineers are to work side-by-side with customers to test ideas and innovative structures in real time.
“ATLAS is the future of aviation manufacturing.”
— John Tomblin, WSU Sr. VP for Industry & Defense Programs
“Our partnership with NIAR through this joint Manufacturing Innovation Center is an important milestone in Solvay’s ambition to help key customers across the United States advance the future of aerospace and defense,” said Carmelo Lo Faro, president of Solvay’s Materials Segment. “Here, we can explore the advantages of new composite material forms with the latest manufacturing technologies to create a lighter, safer and more sustainable aircraft of the future.”
Workforce Powers Investments
Spirit Aerosystems, headquartered in Wichita, is the world’s largest tier-one aerostructures manufacturer. The company’s 10,000 workers make it Wichita’s largest employer. In all, more than 450 aviation companies employ more than 41,000 Kansans. They include Textron Aviation (9,500 workers), Garmin International (4,000 workers), Bombardier/Learjet (1,500 workers), Atlas Aerospace (800 workers), Honeywell International (600 workers) and Collins Aerospace (535 workers).
In October, Gov. Laura Kelly announced a $14.7 million investment by aerospace parts manufacturer Pinnacle Aerospace in a new plant in Wellington that’s to create 155 new aerospace jobs. The plant is to assemble hard metal components for the commercial, general, military and space industries. Pinnacle plans to train its new workforce in collaboration with nearby Cowley College Sumner Campus.
“We wanted to build our new company here because we knew there was a talented workforce already in place in this community,” said Pinnacle President Scott Brown.
Led by Wichita State, the nation’s top-ranked college for industry-funded aerospace research, Kansas universities are virtually unmatched in the support they provide to aerospace research and aerospace workforce development. The National Center for Aviation Training, managed by WSU Tech, is one of the country’s premier facilities for aviation manufacturing education. The University of Kansas, the state’s largest, offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in aerospace engineering, whose programs now are undergoing a rapid expansion of students and faculty. Among a host of other opportunities, Kansas State University Polytechnic offers a nationally recognized unmanned aircraft systems program.
In addition to the pipeline supplied by the state’s universities, military installations such as Ft. McConnell contribute to the Kansas aerospace workforce. McConnell’s workforce of more than 5,000 includes 2,700 active-duty members. Its 22nd Air Refueling Wing is charged with conducting air-refueling operations in any part of the world, in any climate and under any condition, including providing humanitarian assistance.