Aeroplex rising star goal: 50% growth
By Kaija Wilkinson
August 2014
...MOBILE, Ala. -- The ability to text, email and surf the Web on a jet flying tens of
thousands of feet above the earth is taken for granted by travelers these days. It’s
something one rarely thinks about, but behind the scenes there are companies
working diligently to make that happen. And one major player is Star Aviation of the
Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley.
...A literal stone’s throw from the under-construction $600 million Airbus final
assembly plant, Star Aviation is celebrating its 15th anniversary in August. It’s grown
from a five-man operation to a company with 115 employees and counting. And it’s
not just located in Alabama. It now has a technical-support center onsite at Boeing’s
Everett, Wash., assembly plant with 45 employees, along with manufacturing
capabilities that continue to grow and evolve.
...Star Aviation has a wire and metal fabrication shop at the Aeroplex that makes
components such as an antenna adapter for the Boeing 777 and various
components ST Mobile Aerospace Engineering, also located at the Aeroplex, needs
for its long-term work converting nearly 90 passenger planes to freighters.
...An expert in customization, Star provides FAA-approved Supplemental Type
Certification (STCs) for retrofits of cockpit flat-panel displays in business aircraft.
...For its inflight-connectivity, Star works with companies such as Gogo and
Panasonic that partner with airlines including Delta, American and Alaska to develop
custom, aftermarket modifications such as antenna systems installed on the bottom
of aircraft.
...For this type of work, Star Aviation has two main competitors, based in Chicago
and Wisconsin, according to Gordon Smart, executive vice president of operations.
...On the manufacturing side, it has countless competitors all over the world,
including those in countries such as Mexico that can sell products at a fraction of
what Star Aviation charges. But the company feels it sets itself apart by its reputation
for quality and its track record with companies such as Boeing, from which it has
received numerous top-rated supplier awards, as well as a nomination as 2014
supplier of the year. That won’t be announced until April 2015.
...“We’ll take a third party’s widget or gadget and tell the airline how to put it onto the
aircraft. We’ll do all the structural engineering, all the electrical design, all the
engineering support, and then we’ll get a certification from the FAA saying it’s good
to go,” said Smart, the first person hired by Star Aviation’s four founding members.
...The suppliers that Airbus is expected to eventually attract to the Gulf Coast region
promise to result in additional business for Star, Smart said, and the company is
preparing itself for that future work.
...“Our goal over the next five years is to grow the company by 30 to 50 percent, in
revenue, personnel and infrastructure,” he said. “We are actively hiring – I just
posted a job an hour ago on Monster.com,” he said during an interview with a
reporter.
...Smart, a native of Louisiana and a graduate of the University of South Alabama
who met his future wife there and decided to make the Mobile area home, said he
believes Mobile is a great place to live and work. Most of Star Aviation’s talent is
recruited from elsewhere, and in previous years Mobile could be somewhat of a
tough sell, he concedes. But with Airbus and related activity, he said, that is starting
to change.
...“It’s just now getting to the point where aviation is starting to pick up, and of course
with Airbus, now we are able to talk about this area as a great place to plant roots
and build a future. We can say, ‘Look, if it doesn’t work out with us there are plenty of
other options.’ ”
...The company was started by four young men with engineering backgrounds. Smart
has a business management degree, and he said it has helped him venture out and
help Star expand far beyond its original engineering consulting and FAA certification
work. Its manufacturing facility was small then, but hopes for the future were high.
...However, just as Star began building components for Connexion by Boeing, an
internet connectivity service Boeing rolled out with partners United Airlines, Delta and
American in June 2001, the September 11 terrorist attacks happened, causing
airlines to pull back. The partners withdrew and Connexion was dissolved in 2006.
...“The industry kind of sat stagnant for awhile, then other companies like Gogo,
Panasonic and Lufthansa Technik picked up where (Connexion by Boeing) left off.
We were able to build our manufacturing up behind that, starting in 2005-07,” Smart
said.
...The manufacturing component continues to grow, and the outlook is bright, thanks
in large part to Airbus.
...“Now we have full sheet metal manufacturing capability, so we’re basically able to
do anything and everything in house, small, medium and complex parts and pieces
that we build out of sheet metal aluminum as well as doing wire-harness parts (an
assembly of wires that transmit signals or electricity),” Smart said. “We are now
promoting our manufacturing as a standalone business unit.”
...Since it’s privately held, Star holds details about finances close to the vest. Smart
does say, however, that the company is “financially stable” with healthy annual
revenue.
...Asked about what equipment Smart finds most impressive in Star’s clean, roomy
machine shop, he points to a Fadal 3-axis CNC mill, which custom machines pieces
of metal and other material to make parts that are then painted in shades such as
“Boeing Green,” which is somewhere between Army green and khaki.
...Smart says that, in a sense, the Fadal (which set Star back about $150,000) is the
opposite of a 3D printer, which Star does not yet have. He doesn’t rule out getting
one, though.
...“We’re not certain how 3D printers are going to cross over into the aviation world
just yet,” he says. “It’s coming, but for the aviation industry it’s a few years away. For
what we do, you have to do a lot of stress analysis, so we’re not quite sure yet how
that would work with a 3D printer.”

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