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From Site Selection magazine, January 2014

Huntsville In the Hunt

Boeing already considers northern Alabama a strategic location.

Boeing launched the 777X program in November at the 2013 Dubai Airshow with a record-breaking number of customer orders and commitments for the newest member of its twin-aisle product family. Huntsville, Ala., is among the locations competing for its assembly facility.
Image courtesy of Boeing


magine not one, but two commercial aircraft manufacturers announcing new jetliner assembly plants in your state within a year. Alabama is half-way to that goal, with Airbus’ facility near Mobile already beginning to take shape. In early December, Gov. Robert Bentley and his economic development team were working on the other half, preparing to meet a Dec. 10th deadline to submit a proposal to Boeing to locate its 777X production facility in Huntsville, which has been home to Boeing aerospace facilities for more than five decades, from managing strategic missile defense programs to design and development work on the 787 Dreamliner. Lots of other states were doing the same — Missouri’s legislature even passed a measure to lure the project to the Show Me State, showing the Chicago-based aerospace giant a $1.7-billion incentives package tailored to the project.

An in-state Boeing-Airbus commercial aircraft rivalry would resemble the Auburn-Alabama one on the gridiron, but would result in an economic boon to the state that would be the envy of all other contenders. But even if the 777X facility goes elsewhere, Alabama — and Huntsville specifically — already benefits from new Boeing capital investment. The company announced in December that it will locate one of its five research centers in the city as part of a restructuring of its Boeing Research & Technology organization, adding up to 400 high-paying jobs to its already substantial northern Alabama payroll. Seattle, St. Louis and N. Charleston, S.C. (home of a 787 assembly facility) will also welcome Boeing technology research centers. Huntsville’s will specialize in simulation and decision analytics and metals and chemical technology.

“We’re following a strategy we developed and went live with on January 1st, 2012, called Accelerate Alabama in which we have defined pretty clearly 11 sectors that we are most interested in with respect to recruitment and expansion,” says Alabama Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield. “Aerospace is one of those, and our relationship with Airbus is a significant signpost of our beginning to implement and bear the fruit of that strategy.” Regarding the A320 project in Mobile, says Canfield, “We are very focused on making everything happen at this final assembly line, to meet the deadlines and to provide the quality work force that Airbus will require there.

“Part of our strategy as it relates to aerospace,” he continues, “has been as much as possible to take our experience with Airbus and the project in Mobile and to potentially recruit another presence in the northern half of our state for commercial aircraft assembly of some kind. Doing so will create an environment that would make the business case for a supply chain much stronger in terms of locating in Alabama. That is a significant part of our aerospace strategy, as is being focused on research and development and enabling technologies. The Boeing Research & Technology announcement is another signpost of our fulfillment of that strategy.”

Expert Opinion:
Why the 777X Will Be Built in Washington

Nothing was decided as this issue went to press, but some site experts in mid-December were betting that Boeing’s 777X aircraft will be built right where the existing 777s are built — in Everett, Wash. Noted aerospace industry analyst Richard Aboulafia gives Washington an 89-percent chance of winning the facility. Charleston, S.C., he gives a 10-percent chance. All other suitors — combined — have a 1-percent chance. Aboulafia is vice president, analysis, at Teal Group and is a prolific author and commentator on aviation and aerospace matters.

In his November 2013 Letter, at, he makes the case that sites outside Washington “are seriously inferior,” relative to that state’s “big advantages,” which include (1) port facilities for importation of the wings; (2) a work force already familiar with the aircraft, eliminating the production learning curve; (3) relevant infrastructure in Everett; (4) state government support, not the least of which is a recently passed $8.7-billion tax break; and (5) customer qualms about Dreamliner-like glitches and delivery delays that production in Everett would help assuage. As frustrated as Boeing managers may be today, they aren’t likely to let some trees block their view of the forest.

“Final assembly labor costs are a small fraction of the total cost of building a jet,” writes Aboulafia. “Giving workers some of what they want would have a negligible impact on competitiveness, particularly since it would reduce costs and mitigate risks associated with moving the line.”

New R&D investment in Alabama is not limited to aerospace. In November, REHAU Inc., a European company that produces components used in automotive manufacturing and other industries, announced it has chosen Cullman, Ala., for the location of its first research and development facility outside of Germany. REHAU’s Alabama Technical Center will serve as the training and conferencing center for its business divisions in the US, Canada and Mexico.

The $2.5-million, 20,000-sq.-ft. (1,860-sq.-m.) technical center will employ an additional 140 people in Cullman within five years of operation, including an estimated 45 engineers. The company’s other technical centers are located in the German cities of Rehau and Feuchtwangen. REHAU produces polymer-based solutions used in construction, automotive and other industries.

“This shows that our focus and our activity as it relates to recruiting and expanding companies here into the R&D and engineering side is beginning to pay off,” says Canfield. “We are confident that as much as we have focused on the actual process of manufacturing, and will continue to do so, it is equally important that we focus on those support activities that will help anchor manufacturing in the state and complement it. That means a greater emphasis on engineering and research and design.”

‘We Can Do It’

Does Huntsville really have a shot at the 777X assembly facility? Like other contenders — including Long Beach, Calif.; St. Louis, Mo.; North Charleston, S.C.; the Dallas-Ft. Worth area and, yes, Everett, Wash., where the current generation of 777 aircraft is built — Huntsville brings to the table a mixed bag of location pros and cons. (Huntsville and other locations were only in the running in recent weeks after a key union in Everett rejected an offer from Boeing, which has had a frosty relationship with organized aerospace labor in Washington in recent years. Some maintain the new facility will most assuredly land in Puget Sound anyway — see sidebar.

As for Alabama, on one level, aircraft component suppliers are already in place or are in the process of selecting sites from which to supply the Airbus A320 final assembly line near Mobile. That should help. But lack of a local port suitable for importing aerostructures in northern Alabama doesn’t.

“We are confident in Alabama’s position in Huntsville as it relates to satisfying all of the requirements that are requested in the RFP process,” Sec. Canfield told Site Selection after meeting Boeing’s December 10 proposal deadline. “That does include transportation and logistics.”

On the work-force training front, Alabama’s ISO-certified AIDT recruitment and pre-employment training program “always has to be on a path of continuous improvement,” to keep that certification, notes Canfield. AIDT works with educational institutions to develop specific programs, such as a maritime training center for training and certifying welders and pipe builders and a robotics technology center in northern Alabama for training Alabama company workers in high-end automation and other applications.

“We’re looking at enhancing our aviation college to better equip the training and education necessary to meet demands we will see in aerospace across the state,” says Canfield. A new aerospace training center now in development will add to Alabama’s aerospace industry business case, he points out, which will support the Airbus project in Mobile and other employers. “Of course, we would plan to do the same thing if we secure the right type of aerospace project somewhere else in the state.”

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