Spirit AeroSystems - from cornfields to A350s

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A massive new state-of-the-art composite aircraft component factory in a former cornfield in rural North Carolina could represent the future of the US aerospace industry.

The 46,450m2 (500,000ft2) factory, opened on 1 July at the Global TransPark in the eastern North Carolina town of Kinston, completes a $500 million-plus investment by Spirit AeroSystems, Airbus and the state government. Over the next few months the factory will start producing composite centre fuselages and front wing spars for the Airbus A350 XWB, for shipping to Europe from the first quarter of next year.

For now the factory only has 80 employees quietly working on demonstration articles in a small section of the building. But the vice-president and general manager of Spirit's new North Carolina business unit, Daniel Wheeler, expects to have 200 employees by year-end and 750 when the A350 reaches full-rate production.

Wheeler says as part of its incentive package with North Carolina, Spirit is committed to hiring at least 1,037 employees by 2015 or 2016. He says the additional 300 or so employees would likely be added to cover new work packages Spirit hopes to secure.

787 composite nose sections, spirit aerosystems
 © Spirit Aerosystems
Spirit hopes Kinston will resemble its Wichita operation, above

"We don't have any identified packages right now [but] it's natural to put more Airbus work here," Wheeler says.

The Kinston project represents the first time Spirit, spun off from Boeing in 2005 and a major supplier to the airframer with large facilities in Kansas and Oklahoma, is working with Airbus in the USA. But over time Spirit expects to become an Airbus supplier on several programmes.

Wheeler says the Kinston facility could also be a supplier in a new US military aircraft programme: "We'll grow in North Carolina regardless."

There is plenty of space in the existing factory to accommodate new programmes as well as higher A350 output should Airbus elect to increase production beyond its current 10-13 aircraft a month plan. "There's a lot of floor space that's unused. We are ready to go at a pretty high rate," Wheeler says, adding that Spirit will not know Kinston's full capacity "until we run our machines".

CLUSTER BUILDER

There is plenty of space at Spirit's 125Ha (304 acre) site at the Global TransPark to build additional factories if required. Spirit is the first tenant in a massive business park that the local government hopes will eventually include several major aerospace firms.

"I believe Spirit will become a magnet for others," says North Carolina governor Bev Perdue.

She adds that a new short- and long-term strategic plan for the Global TransPark, which North Carolina conceptualised 20 years ago, will be finished at the start of August and focus on developing a major aerospace cluster.

The Kinston area has a large supply labour force with aerospace, automotive or other manufacturing experience that are eager to upgrade their skills and be trained for composites. The area also has some of the lowest cost of living and average wages in the USA, giving it a competitive advantage as US aerospace components manufacturers face increasing competition from lower-cost Asian suppliers.

With the new programme, Spirit will become Airbus's largest US structural supplier. But while Airbus chief executive Tom Enders predicts "the A350 will truly be Spirit's and Kinston's aircraft", he points out the North Carolina project only represents the latest in a long string of US projects for the European manufacturer.

"We invest a lot in the USA and we are spending more money here than any other foreign aerospace company."