Regional aerospace cluster expands, grows international presence, attracts attention

Oct. 14, 2014
Proactive aerospace community grows international presence and participation, becomes an epicenter of aerospace activity in the nation, and competes for business on a global scale.

NAME: Carrie Zethmayr
TITLE: Executive director, trade and investment
CO.: Rockford Area Economic Development Council
ROLE: Supporting mid-America’s international aerospace community

Proactive aerospace community grows international presence and participation, becomes an epicenter of aerospace activity in the nation, and competes for business on a global scale.

Why has Rockford, Ill., been in the news recently?

AAR—the largest nationwide and third-largest global maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) provider—is building a new hangar facility on Chicago Rockford International Airport (RFD) grounds. The facility is expected to employ at least 500 people and expands RFD’s service offerings and infrastructure. The 200,000 square-foot MRO facility is expected to operate 24 hours a day and service military and commercial aircraft.

What is interesting about the aerospace cluster in the Rockford area?

More than 250 aerospace and aviation companies, including 90 in the Rockford metro area, make up the cluster, which is mostly centered on Tier I suppliers, such as UTC Aerospace, GE Aviation, B/E Aerospace, Woodward, Esterline, and AAR.

The entire brain of the aircraft is designed here; a lot of the focus is electric system development, power management, and actuation systems. So much of the aerospace activity in Rockford has to do with the research and development (R&D) of electric systems of the aircraft. It can be difficult for people to conceptualize the electrical system of an aircraft; it’s not like the wing or landing gear, not the sexy, recognizable things. We are creating what makes the plane go, the brain.

R&D is a central focus?

Northern Illinois has a strong focus on innovation within the aerospace network, and it is an important part of the Rockford area. It is an aligned strategy within the cluster, but companies also do quite a bit independently. For example, UTC Aerospace has within its lab a recreation of the entire Boeing 787 electrical system—it is the only one in the world.

Are area aerospace firms involved with defense organizations and prime contractors?

A large number of companies work with military aircraft and apply for U.S. Department of Defense contracts and Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants. We also invite prime contractors to speak to and participate in the business-to-business (B2B) supply chain.

Congressman Adam Kinzinger brought Lockheed Martin to Rockford recently to participate in one-on-one meetings with aerospace companies that might become part of its supply chain. We have hosted similar events with Boeing, GE Aviation, Woodward, Navistar, and others. We are fortunate to have a number of companies looking at the area supply chain and making connections.

How are you ensuring the long-term health of the aerospace and aviation cluster?

There is a focused effort around a more aligned pipeline around aerospace and aviation.

Rock Valley College now offers airframe and powerplant (A&P) training at the airport; they are increasing the number of graduates with the new facility. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Worldwide Campus here offers degrees in aviation maintenance, engineering and project management, and the business operations of aerospace and aviation. Northern Illinois University provides electrical engineering degrees.

Three years ago, the Joint Institute of Engineering & Technology for Aerospace (JiET‐A) launched a collaboration with and among public education institutions. Aerospace and aviation education starts with the junior year in high school and extends through four-year college degree programs and internships and mentorships with local companies. It is about creating a local pipeline and retaining those individuals in the local market.

We’ve made amazing strides in schooling, supporting career-focused education and fostering more career-focused graduates. It is an important step toward a major culture shift, and increasing engineering and manufacturing in our market.

How is Rockford, Ill., unique?

One area is logistics! Rockford Airport (RFD) is the 25th largest air cargo airport in the U.S. and the second largest UPS air cargo hub. It provides easy access to I-90 and I-39, the only north/south interstate in the Chicago market which bypasses congestion in Chicago. In fact, a cargo plane that lands at RFD can have its cargo in a Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) airport-based distribution facility faster than if it had landed at ORD because of a lack of congestion at RFD airport and the interstate highways.

Rockford area aerospace companies work in the commercial aerospace sector, as well. Area businesses, including Ingenium Aerospace, performed some engineering work and contributed to the Virgin Galactic spacecraft, and Forest City Gear manufactured gears for NASA’s Mars rover.

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