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October 2019

GKN Thrives in Alabama

The massive autoclave waits to play its part in production at GKN Aerospace in Tallassee, where workers in two plants create aircraft parts including fuel tanks, engine fans and more. Photos by Cary Norton

Andy Scroggins was born and raised in Tallassee, a town of just under 5,000 people between Montgomery and Auburn. Jeff Miller is from the Midwest and had barely heard of Tallassee when he arrived just over a year ago.

But they now both find themselves in the town that’s part of both Elmore and Tallapoosa counties in leadership roles at plants owned by British-based GKN Aerospace — Scroggins as general manager of one plant and Miller as director of operations just a couple of miles down the road at GKN’s larger plant.

“People are surprised when they find out what we do here,” Scroggins says. “They just don’t think about a plant doing what we do being in Tallassee.”

GKN’s two Tallassee plants are among the more than 50 the company has worldwide, mostly in the United Kingdom, United States, the Netherlands and Sweden. The firm is among the world’s leading aerospace suppliers, developing systems, components and technologies for all types of aircraft, from military and commercial planes and helicopters to drones.

Scroggins’ plant, which employs about 50 people but has plans to double in size over the next two years, builds fuel tanks, but “the really cool part” he says, is in the details. “The interesting thing about the fuel tanks we make is that they are actually designed to save lives.”

GKN’s fuel systems plant makes three types of fuel tanks, or bladders, for aircraft: a basic tank that holds fuel and goes into drones and other aircraft; a crash-worthy tank that holds its shape and doesn’t burst into flames after a low-altitude crash; and a self-sealing tank, which can take a 50-caliber gunshot and continue flying.

“It has a gum-rubber fill inside and will essentially fill itself back up enough that it can get to safety and the aircraft not run out of fuel,” Scroggins says of the self-sealing tank. “That’s going to go into military aircraft going into places where they might get shot at.”

The crash-worthy tank has been mandated by the federal government for all new aircraft since the early ’90s, Scroggins says, and “there’s no telling how many lives this change has saved.”

Cross section of a completed Honda Jet fuselage.

“Since they implemented this, there have only been a few recorded instances of a bladder leaking fuel and catching fire,” he says.

Clients at GKN’s fuel systems plant include General Atomics, which makes drones; Bell and Sikorsky Aircraft, which make helicopters, and the U.S. Navy. And there’s more to come.

“We’re transferring over some product lines from the UK, and our people count will double in the next two years,” Scroggins says. “Our site is going to expand from 20,000 square feet to a little over 50,000 square feet.”

GKN Aerospace’s larger plant located in Tallassee in 1985. It comprises about 380,000 square feet, more than 800 employees and about $212 million annually in revenue, Miller says. It provides structural components and assemblies to about a dozen customers worldwide, including Bell, Sikorsky, HondaJet and Airbus.

One of the plant’s larger customers is GE Aviation.

Tenesha Mott, Myiesha Milner and Rashaundra Simmons laying up a Sikorsky canopy.

“We make the containment cases for the fan in the engines for the 777 and 767 aircraft, which keeps them from penetrating into the fuselage,” Miller says. “That’s representative of the kind of things we do.”

Other customers include Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky, making “a host of components” for the Black Hawk helicopter, he says.

But GKN’s plants in Tallassee are about more than the customers. They are about their employees and the community, too. The fuel systems plant has been operating since 2014, and the composite plant has been there more than 30 years.

“I’ve been in a lot of places doing different things,” says Miller, who has worked in the aerospace industry for 35 years. “One thing that drew me to Tallassee was the employees’ willingness and drive to do better and to succeed and the willingness to change. There’s a great willingness to work and to change and to accept different things.”

Plants in smaller towns like Tallassee are often much more a part of the community than those in other locations, Miller says. Most of his workforce at both plants come from Tallassee and the surrounding areas, including Shorter and Opelika.

“If we invest in the community and the workforce, it’s what keeps us here,” Miller says.

Andy Scroggins explains part of the fuel tank process.

To that end, GKN’s composite plant has started Tallassee University, a two-week training program for employees in conjunction with the Alabama Community College System.

“Because of the technical aspects of the aerospace industry, there are certain specific skill sets, so there was a gap between how some of the current workforce and some of the new people who came in did their jobs,” Miller says. “We cleaned out a room and set up a classroom environment for training classes for all new hires. We’re also running some existing employees through some things that we train.”

Training opportunities like that help GKN Aerospace recruit in the community and local high schools. “Not everybody goes off to college,” Miller says. “Some elect to get an associate’s degree and some go straight to work. We can plant the seed of what we do and what we have to offer.”

GKN Aerospace worldwide instills the “Power of 5” among its 18,000 employees, says Wesley Bates, media and communications manager for the company. That includes promoting a work culture that’s open and honest, innovative, promotes a culture of ownership among its employees and is safe.

The Tallassee plants are known for embracing this culture, with the fuel systems location ranking number one company-wide in job satisfaction and happiness.

“We do a few innovative things for our employees to remain involved and engaged,” Scroggins says. “We don’t hire people on the operating floor unless they’re vetted by the team they’re going to be working with, for instance.”

Both GKN Aerospace locations consider themselves an integral part of the Tallassee community, which is important to Scroggins, a native son. His plant has led a backpack drive for local schools, handed out cookies and other treats to the fire and police departments and delivered valentines to a local nursing home, among other things.

“We consider ourselves the best at what we do, but we’re not just a company that builds products,” Scroggins says. “We’re a company that changes things and a company that people want to come to and like working for.”

Alec Harvey and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Harvey is based in Auburn and Norton in Birmingham.

Inspiration Landing

The Tennessee River is an integral part of plans for Inspiration Landing. Here Sheffield Mayor Ian Sanford (left), Bill Campbell of Construction Engineering and developer John Elkington enjoy the river. Photos by David Higginbotham

Memphis-based developer John Elkington first became acquainted with Sheffield more than a decade ago, when the city’s Mayor Ian Sanford contacted him for advice about redeveloping the city’s downtown.

Like many small Southern towns, Sheffield’s downtown district had grown increasingly vacant and needed new life. Elkington had made a name for himself as the redeveloper of Memphis’ Beale Street, transforming three blocks of urban decay into the top tourist attraction in Tennessee and the catalyst for the rebirth of downtown Memphis.

Elkington traveled to Sheffield, part of the Shoals area in northwest Alabama and home of the historic Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. There, he made a presentation for residents interested in redeveloping the downtown area, and more than 400 attended.

Soon after Elkington’s presentation, the U.S. economy fell into the Great Recession, and the excitement about redeveloping downtown Sheffield fizzled. But the forward thinkers of Sheffield remembered Elkington, his ideas, experience and connections. And about four years ago, Elkington received another phone call from a 256 number.

Bill Campbell, president of Construction Engineering in Sheffield, had a plan to develop 300 acres of land on the Tennessee River on the northern border of the city. Remembering Elkington and his presentation of several years before, Campbell called to ask the Beale Street developer to come to Sheffield once again.

Committing to a Project

Skeptical at first, Elkington became increasingly intrigued as he learned more about the potential project. The city owns 117 acres of the Tennessee riverfront land and agreed to install major infrastructure, including water, sewer, electric, gas and roads, if Elkington and his team agreed to develop the mixed-use project. The City of Sheffield and Colbert County, which has recently seen Sheffield’s downtown area begin flourishing again with new restaurants, shops and bars, also set up a Capital Improvement District to direct a portion of sales taxes, hotel taxes, liquor taxes and all the incremental property taxes within a designated area to help fund the infrastructure and other public improvements.

Elkington and his team undertook an economic impact study and feasibility study to determine whether their investment in Sheffield would pay off. Their studies showed that the project would have an economic impact of more than $100 million and more than 1,000 jobs created in the first year, he says. Over five years, the study showed more than 400 permanent jobs would be created and an economic impact of more than $200 million, “which is huge for a community like Sheffield,” Elkington says.

Some of the demand for this project stems from the fact that a new, $1.6 billion Mazda Toyota plant is under development about an hour away in west Huntsville, along with strong population growth in the Shoals area.

In addition to the clear demand for a mixed-use development in the area, Sheffield and the Shoals area offered a rich, colorful history and unique vibe that Elkington knew could draw a crowd.

“There’s no need to make up a story; the story’s already there,” Elkington says.

That story includes the history of iron making on the very riverfront land where Inspiration Landing’s first phase will stand. There, five blast furnaces run by Ensley, Sloss and other names familiar to the Birmingham iron industry, produced pig iron and sent it down the Tennessee River from the 1880s until 1927. Across some of the same land, thousands of Native Americans marched through on the Trail of Tears, many of them departing for Oklahoma at Tuscumbia Landing on the Sheffield side of the river.

And the Sheffield story also includes its role as the birthplace of some of the greatest R&B, rock and pop hits ever recorded, and home to the famed Muscle Shoals Swampers and the vibrant recording studios that are producing award-winning music today. “After the documentary Muscle Shoals came out in 2013, it helped people identify the area and understand its impact,” Elkington says. “It’s right in the middle of the Americana Music Triangle between Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans, which is the birthplace of blues, jazz, country, rock, R&B, bluegrass and gospel music.”

Sanford, Elkington and Campbell consider plans for Inspiration Landing.

Developing a Plan

Elkington and his team developed a plan for Inspiration Landing, which includes a marina with more than 100 boat slips and a residential development on one side, and a mixed-use development known as Furnace Hill on the other side.

Furnace Hill at Inspiration Landing will include a 4,500-person amphitheater, three hotels, event center, craft brewery, distillery, wedding chapel, town center, interpretive history and culture center, movie theater, shops, restaurants and live TV and radio broadcast music venues.

DittyTV, a television network dedicated to Americana and Roots music, has committed to opening a broadcast and production facility at Inspiration Landing, along with its Vibe & Dime store, which will sell records, books, instruments, vintage items and DittyTV merchandise. The network will broadcast live concerts in its production facilities and interview local and visiting musicians.

Other tenants will be announced in the coming months, but developers are committed to recruiting businesses that will resonate with the theme of music and history.

“Redeveloping Beale Street taught us that you have to stay true to the history that is there,” Elkington says. “It would have never worked if we’d brought in a bunch of chains like Applebee’s, Chili’s and Macaroni Grill, and that won’t work in Sheffield either.”

Instead, Elkington envisions restaurants with live music to create a music scene that’s currently not available in the Shoals area (similar to how he recruited B.B. King to open his first B.B. King’s Blues Club on Beale Street). He plans to help develop regional restaurants, regional shops, a brewery and distillery, movie theater and hotels, tying it all together with an amphitheater to host trade shows, boat shows, car shows and concerts.

Jumping Through Hoops

Large, mixed-use developments always take time, but Inspiration Landing has taken an especially long time because of all the various agencies that needed to be involved and provide approvals. To get a “developable piece of property,” Elkington and his team have had to work with the U.S. Economic Development Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Tennessee Valley Authority, Alabama Historical Commission and Alabama Indian Affairs Commission, among others.

Meeting with all the various groups and completing their requirements to achieve approvals has taken time and money, and Elkington and his team have recruited investment from other areas outside the Shoals. “Sheffield is not a wealthy town, so we’ve had to develop funding sources from outside the city to do all these things,” Elkington says.

The city of Sheffield, for its part, won environmental grants to complete site cleanup. It has secured loan funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to cover the construction of a new road through the Furnace Hill side of the development, Mayor Sanford says.

Forecasting Success

Final approval from the Alabama Historical Commission was granted in September, and Elkington plans to start construction in October. He predicts that roads and utility construction will take about six to seven months.

The next phase, forecast to start in late spring or summer 2020, will include the movie theater, town center, amphitheater and the first hotel. The residential section of the development will also start next year. “We expect to start delivering product in late 2020 or early to mid-2021,” he says.

Plans are to develop 22 acres in the initial phase, but there’s plenty of room for additional development. And Elkington is excited about the long-term possibilities.

“There is a history of giving up in Sheffield; people’s hopes have been raised many times and then nothing happened,” he says. “This has the opportunity to be the next great place in Alabama, and we have a chance to really change the face of a community. We’re being very careful to do it right.”

Nancy Mann Jackson and David Higginbotham are Decatur-based freelance contributors to Business Alabama.

How to Build a Zoo

It took nearly 15 years from idea to completion, but the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo is set to open in November. Photos by Cary Norton

For people in the construction business, building an office complex, residential community or shopping center is relatively easy. Those types of projects have been handled numerous times before, and they are all basically straightforward endeavors.

Building a new zoo? Now that’s a whole different animal.

Zoos aren’t constructed every day or even every decade. So when the city of Gulf Shores decided to create a larger, 25-acre zoo to replace the 7-acre one that has been in operation since 1989, there was no easy blueprint to turn to.

“The architect had never built a zoo. The landscaper had never built a zoo. The engineer had never built a zoo. I had never built a zoo,” says Homer Jolly, who served as lead designer on the project. “We had to work on the master plan a long time before we started building anything.”

Finally, 15 years after the idea was initially proposed and almost two years after construction began, the new Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo is set to open before the end of November. It will be the culmination of what Jolly calls “a true labor of love for everybody involved with it.”

The need for a new zoo became evident following Hurricane Ivan, in 2004, when nearly 300 animals had to be evacuated from the current low-lying facility, only a mile from the coast. The zoo was evacuated again in 2005 for Hurricane Katrina, prompting increased discussion about finding a new location farther from shore.

That became possible in 2006 when Gulf Shores businessman Clyde Weir and his daughter, Andrea Weir Franklin, donated a 25-acre tract of land 4 miles north of the current zoo to be used for the construction of a new facility. But the one-two punch of the economic recession followed by the BP oil spill put those plans on hold for a decade, as the city struggled to raise money for the $30-million project.

“This is not something you can just snap your fingers and do overnight, especially with all the tremendous hurdles we had to overcome,” says Steve Jones, vice president of special events and advocacy for the Coastal Alabama Business Chamber. “It’s been a very serious struggle for a small group of individuals for the last 15 years.”

Finding the funding was only half the challenge. Then came the truly uncertain aspect of actually building the thing, which Jones says required “a tremendous amount of research.” So Jolly was brought in to work with Joey Ward, whose family started the original zoo 30 years ago and who supervised the construction of the new facility.

The two men visited more than a dozen zoos and amusement parks, talking with zookeepers and directors about what worked well and what didn’t. They consulted with the Zoological Association of America (ZAA), which has a 56-page guide detailing the required standards for zoo construction and animal care, as well as the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees animal welfare.

“It was a one-year process of learning, as we put the master plan together,” Jolly says. “It’s not like building a subdivision, where everything is laid out in grids and it’s easy to get the infrastructure in place. With every exhibit, there are specific ZAA guidelines that you have to follow when it comes to the design and the care of the animals. And we had to do all this within a budget that Gulf Shores could afford. So it was a challenge.”

Officials turned to outside help for the creation of some exhibits, such as the monkey island. For that, a 22-person team from Aquascape Pond Squad — a YouTube show about landscapers who create challenging water features — came in and constructed the habitat in only four days, complete with waterfalls. “I was amazed at how fast they put that together,” Jolly says.

But for the most part, building the zoo was a slow, methodical slog. The construction team had to carefully follow the ZAA guidelines detailing the height and strength of fencing, as well as the minimum square footage of each individual structure, all of which can vary from animal to animal. The team faced a multitude of issues, ranging from general safety to the easy removal of animal waste.

“The engineering that had to go into all those things for construction were in many cases more serious than it has to be for a single-family home or a commercial building,” Jones says. “The level of scrutiny and engineering to make sure it was done right and guarantee animal and keeper safety was amazing. Because you’re building something that animals inhabit, not people, and the standards for animal care can be higher than they are for humans.”

Indeed, the ZAA guidelines are often stringent and painfully precise. For example, lion and tiger exhibits require an enclosure of at least 24-by-15 feet for one or two animals, with an increase in size of 25 percent for each additional animal. There also must be a vertical jump wall at least 14-feet high, plus a 2-foot, 45-degree inward angle overhang with a hot wire.

Veterinarian and Interim Zoo Director Adam Langston says it was a challenge to meet all the codes that keep people and animals safe, but he’s confident it’s worth it.

“It’s a long process to meet all the codes,” says zoo veterinarian Adam Langston, who also has been serving as the facility’s interim director during the construction process. “We’ve had to really work together on all the infrastructure that’s involved to make this giant plan come to life. It’s been a huge project.”

But all those involved are hopeful that the end result will make the effort worthwhile. From the Jurassic Park-style entranceway that is 30 feet high and 50 feet wide, to the certified green restaurant with panoramic views of the property, the new Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo was designed to be both entertaining and awe-inspiring.

“I’m hoping it will be one of the best attractions along the Gulf Coast. I know we have some of the best-looking facilities along the Gulf Coast,” Jolly says. “It’s been a true labor of love for everybody involved with it. Everybody was proud to be working on this project.”

Design and Construction Team

Project Manager: Joey Ward, Cool Concepts Consulting LLC
Lead Designer: Homer Jolly, Homer Jolly Design
Construction Consultant: Terry Christmas, TPC Associates
Architect: Steadman McCollough, McCollough Architecture Inc.
Landscape Architect: Chad Watkins, WAS Design Inc.
Engineering: Barry Dees, Dees Engineering Inc.
Site Contractor: Colin Uter, Blade Construction
Vertical Contractor: Stuart Construction, John Alms, Ben Harris, Billy Peavy
Food and Beverage Manager: Greg Bushmohle
Finish and Detail Carpenters: Shoreline Carpentry, Greg Plante, Tyler Munn
Prop and Finish Artist: Coastal Visions Artistic Service, Jenny Lynn Culberson , Chris Lenning
Faux and Sign Artist: Todd Faehnrich

Cary Estes and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.

Dynetics Builds First Real Ray Gun for the Army

An artist’s concept of the High Energy Laser Tactical Vehicle that Dynetics will integrate by combining a laser weapon developed by Lockheed Martin and a heavy combat vehicle built by Rolls-Royce LibertyWorks.

Martian invaders beamed fiery destruction on Earth in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, first published in 1897, 20 years in advance of the quantum theories of Albert Einstein, whose extremely excitable photons became the scientific basis of ray guns.

Reeling forward through Buck Rogers, Star Trek and Star Wars, it seems like we’ve been living with ray guns forever — when, in fact, the Department of Defense is just now developing the first such weapons that could be practical on the battlefield.

The first field artillery laser weapon is what Dynetics expects to build for the U.S. Army. The Huntsville company was named the prime contractor for the weapon — the High Energy Laser Tactical Vehicle — with the award, in May, of a $130 million contract to the team of Dynetics and Lockheed Martin.

“It is the outgrowth of a lot of work the SMDC (Space and Missile Defense Command) did in directed energy work,” says Ronnie Chronister, Dynetics senior vice president of contracts. “People for a long time thought of it as a Star Wars type weapon, but the technology had to be improved for something that could be put on a vehicle and used as a weapons system.”

The “Star Wars” Chronister refers to is not the movie, but the ambitious missile defense system of Ronald Reagan known officially as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and popularized as Reagan’s Star Wars program.

“I used to be a threat assessment guy at the (Redstone) Arsenal,” says Scott Stanfield, director of strategic programs at Dynetics, referring to his Star Wars years working at the Missile and Space Intelligence Center. “That was 30 years ago, when they were dealing with big liquid lasers the size of buildings. You have to look at those threats, and so you need a building to set up the power generation dissipation. Clearly, there has been a lot of development in the last 30 years since that time, to get to fiber lasers at the 100K power level mounted on a tactical platform. The technology had to catch up.”

“Fantastical” rather than “ambitious” might be more apt for the SDI laser program, which called for an array of space-based laser weapons that would detect and deter any nukes fired at the U.S. A 1987 study by the American Physical Society concluded that none of the prospective systems were anywhere close to deployment. Energy output had to be increased by 100 times to sometimes a million times to be conceivable.

It takes a lot of light — photons — and you have to get them extremely excited, as Einstein put it, as well as deliver them with precision over considerable distances.

Firing them from outer space is still far fetched, except for the aspirations of the defense industry. In March, defense officials asked for $304 million to fund research into space-based lasers next year — motivated by a new generation of super fast, hypersonic missile threats. “Hypersonic” means faster than the speed of sound, and lasers fly at the much greater speed of light. “But just figuring out what might work is a difficult technical challenge,” reported defenseone.com.

Developing a laser that has enough power and accuracy for use on the battlefield has not been easy either, but it is now close to reality, say Dynetics officials.

The contract that Dynetics won began with an Army Request for Proposals for a 100 kW laser on the back of a rugged army truck. Dynetics was one of six companies that responded by putting their concepts on paper. The competition was narrowed down to two, Dynetics and Raytheon, in the preliminary design phase before the final award, which is to develop the system and make a demonstrator by fiscal year 2022.

“People for a long time thought of it as a Star Wars type weapon,” says Ronnie Chronister, Dynetics senior vice president of contracts, “but the technology had to be improved for something that could be put on a vehicle and used as a weapons system.”

One key to Dynetics’ contract win, says Chronister, was the company’s location near Redstone Arsenal. “I think that was a big deal: to do the work right outside their gate,” he says.

But the foremost advantage to the win, says Chronister, was teaming with Lockheed Martin. Lockheed’s Laser and Sensor Systems division in Bothell, Washington, is “the frontrunner in the development of the laser beam and control. They know how to track and control that beam and put the right amount of power onto the target,” says Chronister.

In 2017, Lockheed unveiled a world record-setting laser weapon, sporting a 58 kW laser beam. “We have shown that a powerful directed energy laser is now sufficiently light-weight, low volume and reliable enough to be deployed on tactical vehicles for defensive applications on land, at sea and in the air,” said Robert Afzal, Lockheed’s senior fellow in Bothell.

Now Lockheed is bringing the power up to 100 kW, and Dynetics will be tasked with mounting it on an Army truck and showing that it works.

For the Army truck, the Dynetics contract team includes partner Rolls-Royce LibertyWorks, which will also design the integrated power and thermal management system to meet requirements for the High Energy Laser Tactical Vehicle.

Dynetics will be in charge of putting all the pieces together and demonstrating that it works.

That it works, that is, on the battlefield, which means knocking out weapons large and small that threaten Army missile defenses on the ground.

The weapon Dynetics will put together and test at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico by the delivery date of FY2022 is designed “to defeat UAF (unmanned flying vehicles) and mortar fire and intended to protect air defenses, Patriot and THAAD missiles, field air defense assets,” says Chronister. “We will help to define the requirements, and once that is done, they develop a more formal program to build several of these.”

The great advantage of such a weapon comes in reducing the cost of defending missile emplacements from attack by much smaller weapons, including mortar rounds and swarms of UAVs.

“The systems now employed use rockets for shooting down rockets and rockets for shooting down UAVs,” says Chronister. “Initial capability deployed will counter those threats. Beauty of the directed energy solution is that once you get it right, the cost per kill is a lot lower.”

Cost, says Stanfield, can be reduced to something comparable to $50 mortar rounds, and with a high-energy weapon, there will be “much deeper magazines,” a lot of rounds.

Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.

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