Aerospace – Giants and Startups in Alabama Aerospace

Alabama’s aerospace industry has made significant strides in the last year, owing in part to the sheer diversity of its technology and manufacturing companies. The state’s versatile collection of small and specialty businesses covers a broad spectrum, from composite pieces to robotic manufacturing systems to legendary companies of the nation’s aerospace industry.

Archangel Systems

Based in Auburn, Archangel Systems has steadily expanded its dealership network into the Northeast and South America. The European Aviation Safety Agency has recently granted them approval to use their flagship product in European airspace. “This is a major accomplishment for our planned growth into civilian aircraft throughout Europe, ” says Director of Emerging Technology Bill Dillard. “By the end of 2015, we will have FAA approval for our next major product addition, targeting the aircraft retrofit market.”

The company designs and manufactures attitude, air data and magnetic heading systems for virtually any form of aircraft. “Today we supply to major OEMs, defense departments and retrofit shops around the world, ” Dillard says.

Archangel handles all operations in-house, with 20 employees across engineering, production and corporate administration. “We outsource nothing, ” says Dillard. “That means Archangel staff executes all aspects of FAA certification and quality system control to industry standards.”

Archangel has invested extensive R&D into inertial sensor technology. “That work has been funded over the years by several Department of Defense offices in both Huntsville and Washington, including SMD, ONR, and DARPA, ” says Dillard. “In fact, our product catalog was a direct spin-off from one R&D program.”

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The company supplies its systems to a wide range of international customers, such as Airbus Defense and Space, The Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin, as well as an increasing list of retrofit houses.

Their flagship product, the AHR150A/300A, can be found in vehicles across the globe. This Air Data Attitude Heading Reference System boasts four certifications, state-of-the-art technology and cost-efficiency. The device is designed to measure and report inertial data for fixed- and rotary-wing platforms.

With the AHR150A/300A’s recent entry into the European markets, Archangel has taken measures to meet a new customer base and increased demand for its services. “We’ve purchased new equipment to increase our production capabilities, ” says CEO Michael Greene. “We’re ready to make a big push.”

Greene was a professor at Auburn University for 30 years and has seen the state’s aerospace industry accelerate since founding Archangel in 1992. “Alabama is becoming a more major player, ” he says. “Here we have a good climate for testing, a good labor pool and a good tax structure. The way aerospace has come up lately, it’s similar to the state’s auto industry.”

Inside Boeing’s Modeling and Simulation Lab.

Photo courtesy of Boeing

Boeing Co.

In August, Boeing served as the titanium sponsor at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium. More than 4, 000 people registered for the event, held at Huntsville’s Von Braun Center. “The event allowed industry in Huntsville and beyond to engage each other, ” says Bill Phillips, vice president Boeing Huntsville Customer Engagement. “It brought U.S. and international partners together to share input.” 

The symposium was punctuated with a Salute to the Warfighter, in which Phillips led a toast with Lt. General David Mann and the keynote speaker, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall III. A throng of Boeing employees was also present for the toast, as was Jim Chilton, vice president and general manager of Boeing Strategic Missile & Defense Systems. 

In June, Boeing opened its new Research & Technology Center with a digital ribbon cutting. The center covers 80, 000 square feet of Huntsville’s Redstone Gateway and Jetplex Industrial Park. Equipped for simulations, analytics and applied mathematics, the facility has already employed around 200 engineers to develop new technology and advance both military and civil aviation. 

The company is one of the largest employers in the Huntsville area, with 2, 703 employees in the state and a nearly equal number of Alabama retirees. “Huntsville leverages a high-tech workforce, ” says Phillips. “You get great value for hiring here in Alabama.” 

Boeing’s Huntsville operation is a vital component of the nation’s defense programs. “Much of what we do is concentrated on missile defense, ” says Phillips, who has served 38 years in the military including deployment to Baghdad. “Our people are proud of the work they do. This community cares so much about soldiers, sailors and Marines.” 

Vehicles like the Chinook and Apache helicopters, as well as the PAC-3 missile seeker, are heavily employed to transport and protect soldiers in combat areas. “A product from Boeing is always on point there, ” says Phillips. “Our goal is to never send soldiers into a fair fight. We work to make sure our warfighters have the advantage and to make sure they come back safely.”

Aerobotix developed this robotic coating system that places an injection mold on the surface of combat aircraft to apply “mold-in-place” coatings, which eliminate VOC emissions and produce precise coating thicknesses, explains company President Kirk McLauchlin.

Photo courtesy of Aerobotix

Aerobotix Inc.

Elsewhere in the Jetplex Industrial Park, Aerobotix Inc. has solidified several new partnerships to develop and advance the state of the art in automated manufacturing processes. The robotic systems integrator specializes in advanced aerospace and military coating applications. Their turnkey robotic systems apply customized coatings to military aircraft and weapons systems, space launch vehicles and more. 

Within the last year, Aerobotix has partnered with a small tech company to produce new coating thickness measurement hardware. The new technology is now being used in production applications. Aerobotix also has landed an exclusivity agreement with a major prime contractor for use of its automated process technology. 

“Aerobotix has also positioned itself to be a key supplier of turnkey robotic coating systems for either contender who may be awarded the Long Range Bomber program later this year, ” says President Kirk McLauchlin.

Developing its automatic systems with a team of 30 employees, Aerobotix is extensively involved in Small Business Innovative Research. The firm maintains a limited number of subcontractors, preferring to do the bulk of its operations in-house. But when Aerobotix does partner, its partnerships include high-profile organizations. “Locally, we have worked with, or for many of the aerospace and military prime contractors and their subcontractors, ” says McLauchlin, “as well as working directly for NASA and the military.”

“Aerobotix was a local start-up, ” says McLauchlin, “a by-product of the significant amount of spin-off technologies and companies from the heavily concentrated aerospace and military business base, anchored by Marshall Space Flight Center and Redstone Arsenal.”   

McLauchlin considers the Madison/Huntsville area’s continued innovation to be emblematic of the state’s establishment as a major aerospace contender.  “To a certain extent, with all of the aerospace and manufacturing expertise in this state, aerospace has weaved its way into being a culture, not just an industry, ” he says. “All of these factors together cement Alabama as not only a major state in the aerospace industry, but a more-than-formidable threat to compete for, and secure additional aerospace market share.”

Teledyne Brown Engineering

Teledyne Brown Engineering is currently expanding the commercial aspects of its space enterprise, while preparing advanced systems for NASA and the International Space Station. The Huntsville-based company provides systems engineering and integration and advanced manufacturing solutions for defense, space, environmental and energy applications.  

Teledyne was one of the first companies created to support Wernher von Braun and his team, and it has accumulated a long list of high-profile partnerships. “In space and defense, we’ve been involved in some of the most significant milestones in our country’s space exploration and defense programs, including every Space Shuttle mission, the International Space Station program, the new Space Launch System and many ballistic missile defense efforts, ” says Jan Hess, president of the engineered systems segment of Teledyne Technologies Inc., and its subsidiary, Teledyne Brown Engineering.

The company is now partnering with the Chamber of Commerce of Huntsville/Madison County, the Huntsville Airport Authority and Sierra Nevada Corp. to study the possibility of landing Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spacecraft at the Huntsville International Airport. (See story page 33.) “Depending on the results of the study, Huntsville could become the first commercial airport landing a spacecraft, ” says Hess. 

In April, Teledyne was awarded a major Army contract to test execution, lethality development and validation, analyses, flight and ground test data collection, live fire test and evaluation, and missile integration and flight testing for missile defense weapon systems. 

“The contract has a value of up to $67.4 million over a period of up to 48 months, ” says Hess. “Our win is a direct result of our outstanding past performance providing missile defense software, hardware in the loop simulation, and test and integration.” 

Teledyne also is one of four prime contractors building NASA’s next generation launch vehicle, the Space Launch System. “We’re responsible for the Launch Vehicle Stage Adaptor, ” says Hess. “It will connect the rocket’s 27.5-foot diameter core stage and the 16.4-foot diameter Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage and will be the largest piece of hardware Teledyne Brown has ever built.”

In the lab at Muskogee Technology. 

Photo courtesy of Muskogee Technology

Muskogee Technology

In June, Muskogee Technology was among Alabama’s select delegates at the 2015 Paris Air Show. As the world’s largest aviation business exposition, the air show allowed Muskogee to establish promising contacts throughout the international industry. “We want to continue to bring business to Alabama, ” says Director of Marketing Mal McGhee. 

The Atmore-based manufacturer has been owned and operated by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians since 1988. “The Poarch Indians want to be a part of Alabama’s growth, ” says McGhee.

While Muskogee has increased its role in the wind energy industry, it also has developed aerospace expertise in composites, fabrication, machining, electro-mechanical assembly and supply. Partnerships include a contract with GKN Aerospace. Muskogee also will contribute materials for the new HondaJet and Airbus’ commercial and military projects. 

Muskogee employs about 55 personnel across two facilities. “One of our buildings used to be an old tire shop, ” says McGhee. “Now the unused space has been revitalized. We use it for fabrication. We can provide composites needed for heavy platforms and ground support equipment.” As the company grows, it has opened new positions for welders and machine operators. 

Muskogee is eager to be part of the state’s growing aerospace industry, but sees a need for better education. “When companies plan to relocate, they look for facilities, education and valuable property, ” says McGhee. “To continue to improve, the Mobile area will need to think like Huntsville.” 

“We’ll need an institution like UAH to teach the tech skills that the industry needs, ” he says. “Top companies are coming, so we’ll have to mold the next generation and prepare our workforce for those jobs.”  

Thomas M. Little and Robert Fouts are freelancers for Business Alabama. Little is based in Birmingham and Fouts in Montgomery.

Text by Thomas M. Little • Photo by Robert Fouts

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