Cluster helps engineer Mobile future
A growing aerospace-focused engineering hub at the Mobile Aeroplex is a major
development resulting from the first Airbus jetliner assembly line being built in the
United States...

By Matt Irvin
August 2015
MOBILE, Ala. -- Phil Gurvitz doesn’t hedge when asked why France’s AKKA
Technologies decided to set up shop not far from where Airbus will assemble U.S.-
built jetliners.

While AKKA’s initial staffing will be small, Gurvitz sees a bright future for aerospace
engineering at the Mobile Aeroplex, which he sees as being in the “perfect position”
for growth.

“I believe this will really develop exponentially,” Gurvitz said. “We have the rails, we
have the interstates, we’re right on the sea. I believe there’s nothing holding it back.”

Mobile’s nascent aerospace engineering cluster started getting attention a few
months ago when the Mobile Airport Authority announced that three more
engineering companies would set up shop at the Aeroplex.

Roger Wehner, executive director of the Mobile Airport Authority, sees a bright future
for the cluster at the 1,700-acre Aeroplex. “We think the engineering support will
grow here,” he said, especially industrial engineers, who are in “big demand” in the
local aerospace industry.

Engineers in the Gulf Coast region involved in aerospace activities have historically
clustered near Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., where aerial weapons are developed,
Stennis Space Center, Miss., where propulsion system are tested, and Michoud
Assembly Facility, New Orleans, where spacecraft are fabricated.

Mobile has engineers, including aerospace at Continental Motors, but most of the
engineers are civil and industrial. There’s also a concentration of marine engineers
and naval architects that’s above the national average, with a location quotient of
12.79.1

But the arrival of Airbus Engineering Center in 2007 signaled the possible growth of
the aerospace engineering sector. It opened with just 35 employees, but today has
over 200.

Then the Safran Group, another of the world’s top 10 aerospace and defense
companies, announced in December 2012 that it would open a $2 million center at
the Aeroplex.

Safran Engineering produces wiring solutions for Airbus and other companies in the
aerospace industry. Clients include Boeing, Bombardier, Embraer, Dassault,
Eurocopter, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. Safran Group also has a long-term
relationship with GE, developing and producing jet engines for civil aviation.

Even though it has yet to occupy its new office space in Mobile, Safran’s footprint at
the Aeroplex promises to grow. In mid-June, a Safran company, Messier-Bugatti-
Dowty – a world leader in in aircraft landing gear and braking systems – announced it
will open an office and workshop in Mobile to support the A320 assembly line. Safran
USA spokeswoman Michelle Lyle said MBD would begin operations in September,
and she hinted at an even greater Safran presence.

When the new Safran building opens in Mobile, it “will house MBD and several other
Group companies that will also contribute to the (Airbus A320) program.

“This decision reflects Safran’s commitment to support customers locally and expand
our relationship with Airbus,” Lyle said by email. “Safran’s presence in this major
aviation hub is in line with its strategy to be close to customers in the U.S. and the
world.”

But it’s the engineering cluster that’s drawing attention. In Alabama, Huntsville is the
leader by far for aerospace engineers, with more than 3,000 and a location quotient
of 28.49.2

But Mobile is in the game.

AKKA Technologies, Sonovision and Inter-Informatics were lured to the Aeroplex
thanks to prior relationships with Airbus and because the aerospace campus was
able to set them up in its engineering incubator. By sharing facilities like a reception
area and office equipment, they’ll be able to keep costs down prior to expansions.

AKKA’s Gurvitz said his company has had a long-term relationship as a primary
subcontractor for Airbus, so when the plane-maker announced it would launch an
assembly line in Mobile, it asked the AKKA to also open on the Gulf Coast.

“The incubator was a big draw,” said Gurvitz, Southeast Region Program Leader for
AKKA Technologies Group North America.

AKKA, headquartered in Paris, performs a range of engineering work for Airbus,
including upgrade services, research and development, maintenance paperwork
management, specifications work and project management. Though the Mobile office
has only a small contingent for now, Gurvitz said, the local team works closely with all
the European offices.

“We get work out of Hamburg (Germany) and Mobile,” he said, and that relationship
is two-way. Depending on workload, certain aspects of projects may be handled out
of the offices of either city.

Indeed, this is one of the advantages of industrial clusters. The ability to work with
partners can ease workload, solve problems more quickly and drive innovation.
David Trent, site director of the Airbus Engineering Center in Mobile, said having
partners with similar capabilities in close proximity can enhance the climate for major
projects.

“From time to time we resource specific work to companies like these for various
reasons, including stretched internal resources or needing a specific capability,” said
Trent, leader of a facility that employs more than 220 engineers in support of several
Airbus projects, including the company’s newest plane, the A350 XWB, and the A380,
the world’s largest commercial airliner.

While the A320 line was a powerful reason for these companies to come to the Gulf
Coast, the region’s ever-expanding aerospace industry made coming here an
attractive proposition.

“It is important to remember that Airbus is not the only customer in Mobile,” Trent
said. “Having a cluster of engineering consulting firms in the area does enhance
Mobile’s aerospace community, and as a result, we are all benefiting,” he said.

As one example, Gurvitz said AKKA is about to engage in a project with Continental
Motors at the Aeroplex. He said his company also does work for other major
aerospace companies, including Boeing and Northrop Grumman, both of which have
operations in the Gulf Coast.

In addition to aerospace, AKKA works in major industries including automotive,
railways, defense, pharmaceuticals, energy and telecom. The company’s subsidiary,
Mercedes Benz Technology, has offices in various states, including Tuscaloosa, Ala.,
supporting the automotive industry.

The Sonovision Group works in the fields of logistics and document engineering.
With headquartered in the Paris suburb of Bagneux, it has operations in France and
seven other countries. It works with clients in aerospace, transportation, defense and
energy. Sonovision provides project management support, technology risk
management, engineering and production of maintenance tools, technical document
engineering and language engineering, such as translations and presentations, and
multilingual project management.

Inter-Informatics is an engineering and design consultancy with headquarters in
Prague, Czech Republic. The company’s varied offerings include expertise in
aerospace, information technology and railway vehicles and machinery.

Its aerospace division works on aircraft interior design and engineering, with services
that include concept and detail design, development, customization and upgrades,
stress analysis, manufacturing and installation support. Other services include
airframe design and stress justification and documentation with both metallic and
composite structures; electrical subsystem integration and design, and avionics
installation; and tool and jig designs for aircraft manufacturing.

The company has worked with Airbus since 2000. Inter-Informatics has offices in
several countries, mainly in Europe. The Mobile Aeroplex office is one of two in the
United States; the other is in Miami.

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1 Location quotient indicates the concentration of an occupation employment
compared to the national average concentration. A quotient greater than 1 indicates
a share higher than the U.S. average. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2014.
2 BLS, May 2014.

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