Macomb County ready to tap aerospace riches

Posted on February 14, 2014

It was the manufacturing world’s version of speed-dating.

More than 400 company executives representing more than 150 Michigan manufacturers gathered in Sterling Heights recently to engage in brief, one-on-one “matchmaking” sessions with corporate kingpins, hoping to win the chance to branch out into the world of aerospace.

Boeing Corp. and Macomb County’s own KUKA Systems North America were the objects of affection for these small industrial firms who have a history of contributing to travel on the roads, not in the skies.

Organized by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, last week’s event was an attempt to put the state’s longtime auto suppliers’ heads in the clouds, showing them how to transfer their advanced manufacturing expertise into skills that are needed in the manufacture of aircraft components.

A global manufacturer with North American operations based in Sterling Heights, KUKA was offered to the audience as a shining example of an auto-based firm that has broken through in a big way within the aerospace industry since making the first move in 2006.

“We think most manufacturers in our state could do exactly the same thing once they understand how to do business in that sector,” said the MEDC’s CEO, Mike Finney.

The aerospace market represents untold riches for the state and county if industrial firms are willing to make some adjustments toward diversification. That’s because the airline manufacturers are in the middle of a 2-year burst that is expected to increase production by 40 percent.

As aging 777 and 787 commercial jets need replacement, experts estimate that 34,000 new aircraft will be produced in the next 15 years. That represents a $4.5 trillion investment.

Vicky Rad, interim deputy director of the county’s economic development agency, said Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Drummond are already interested in the kind of automation and robotics that suppliers like KUKA have transferred from automotive production to airline assembly.

“Here in Macomb County we have a strong hub tied to the aerospace industry. It’s kind of like our best-kept secret,” Rad said. “If we can take the technology we use in auto assembly and transform that into the aerospace industry, it’s a win-win for Boeing and for us, it’s a win-win for Lockheed and for us.”

Gov. Rick Snyder called the Small Business Summit held last Thursday in Sterling Heights a “fabulous event” that showcased Macomb County on the forefront of the move toward new job opportunities. The matchmaking approach is at the heart of Pure Michigan Business Connect, an MEDC program, the governor said.

The program has already sparked more than $1.6 billion in new business activity over the past 2 ½ years by encouraging Michigan companies to do business with other companies. That’s the equivalent of 8,000 jobs retained or created.

“It’s really a good-neighbor policy that says, ‘Can’t we find more Michigan suppliers? And can’t we find more Michigan customers?’” Snyder explained during an appearance in Warren Tuesday.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, who spoke at the Small Business Summit, has pushed the county’s auto suppliers to diversify into the defense industry. Aerospace could be the next frontier.

Robert Reno, head of the global KUKA Systems Aerospace Division, said the summit featured a combined 50 niches that need to be filled in the supply chain for KUKA and Boeing. The sales pitch focuses on the higher returns and other financial advantages of working in aerospace compared to automotive.

“The aerospace industry tends to be less cyclical,” Reno said. “An aircraft development program has a long lead time, often several years, and that plane will remain in production for even longer.”

Amid the dozens of classic cars at the General Motors Heritage Museum in Sterling Heights, aerospace executives huddled with auto suppliers in “matchmaking” meetings where sales pitches were made.